Chapter 10: Stepping Up

Harry repressed a curse as smoke began to billow from his cauldron. There were times that he really hated Potions. It wasn't that he was bad at brewing, but when he did make a mistake, they tended to be spectacular. The worst thing was that he simply didn't understand where he had gone wrong. How could you mess up something when you had a step by step process to follow? He looked over to the other side of the room to where Hermione was sitting. He was only slightly gratified to see that she was going red in the face from the effort of concentration; her potion seemed to be simmering nicely though.

"Oh dear, Harry, oh dear." Professor Slughorn had reached his desk, his usual glacial amble around the dungeon coming to a halt. He stroked his moustache thoughtfully as he leant over the cauldron. "Perhaps a touch more sopophorous juice might have helped?"

"I got all I could, Professor!" Harry protested, showing him the sliced beans as proof. It had taken him nearly ten minutes to get them cut up properly. Slughorn patted his shoulder in commiserating fashion.

"Not to worry, my boy, not to worry. I think it will still be a very respectable effort."

With that, the corpulent wizard strolled off, passing much less favourable judgement on Blaise Zabini's concoction. Harry watched him go for a moment, then looked back at his potion. With a sigh, he began to stir once more, wafting the smoke away with a casual wave of his wand. Slughorn hadn't just been trying to cheer up one of his favourite students, he supposed; the Draught was closer to purple than lilac than he would have liked, but he ought to be able to get at least a passing grade. The prize was probably out of his grasp though, and he flashed a longing look at the vial which still stood tantalisingly on Slughorn's desk. The Felix Felicis shimmered golden even in the dim light of the dungeon, and he couldn't help but entertain a few thoughts about what might constitute a perfect day.

He would be able to perfect his Wand Summoning Charm, that was certain.

By the end of the class, Harry had managed to rescue his potion sufficiently that Slughorn smiled appreciatively when he examined it. The leaf went in, and curled up around the edges.

"Very good, Harry, very good indeed. I told you that you could do it, didn't I?"

Harry smiled to himself as Slughorn moved away, faintly embarrassed by the praise. The Potions master bestowed approval on Hermione's potion – the leaf starting to smoulder – and then moved on to Malfoy. The blond boy was looking even more smug than he usually did, and apparently justifiably; when Slughorn dropped a leaf into his student's potion, it burnt up in the blink of an eye.

"Excellent, Draco!" Slughorn cried in delight. "A truly splendid effort! And a worthy winner to boot – I have no hesitation in announcing you today's winner, and the lucky recipient of one vial of Felix Felicis!"

Draco preened under the polite applause that followed Slughorn's statement, practically snatching the vial from his Head of House and placing it in his bag with a lascivious expression. Harry could not help feeling disappointed. He had known that it was a slim hope of him winning the vial, but to see Draco Malfoy walking away with the perfect day…

He gathered his things together, decanting the potion into a vial for official marking and taking it to the front. Slughorn smiled at him.

"I'm hosting one of my little soirees at the weekend, Harry, you'll be there of course?"

"I'd be delighted, sir," Harry replied, more or less honestly. Slughorn hummed pleasantly.

"Excellent. I'm going to be inviting the Beauxbatons and Durmstrang contingents as well – introduce them to the cream of the crop, so to speak. Maybe some competition for the Tournament, as well! Speaking of which," and as he spoke, Slughorn took on a more serious air. "Have you given any thought to entering?"

Harry blinked in surprise. It was one thing for his father to suggest it, but Slughorn? "I…well, my dad talked about it with me. I'm not sure that I'm quite right for it though."

"Well, you know yourself best I suppose, but I think you do yourself a disservice," Slughorn told him. His moustache quivered slightly.

"I'm not really the Champion type. And I don't really need the money."

"Ah, but think of the future, my boy! You have excellent grades, yes, and you're very skilled." He paused, leaning over the desk to emphasis his point. "Those will stand you in excellent stead when you set out into the wider world, and you can of course rely on an excellent recommendation from me, my boy. But if you could say that you were Champion…"

There was a moment of silence as Harry absorbed that. He hadn't really thought about it in those terms. Whenever the Tournament was discussed, it was all about the excitement, the danger, the glory, the gold – but Slughorn was right. A Triwizard Champion was in theory one of the best wizards of their generation. He could walk into any position he wanted, potentially. An apprenticeship of his choice, a Ministry position…

"When you put it like that," Harry said slowly, "it sounds a little more appealing, I'll admit."

"Well, I don't want to pressure you, of course," Slughorn said, picking up his briefcase and walking towards the door. Harry followed in his wake. "Just remember to think of the bigger picture."

"I will, sir. Thank you."

"See you at the weekend, my boy! Miss Granger, you'll be there as well, I assume?"

Hermione, who was leaning against the corridor wall with a Transfiguration book in her hand, looked up, clearly having been lost in her own little world. "Oh! Erm, yes, Professor. Of course."

"Excellent!" With that, the professor waddled off. Harry watched him go in silence, shaking his head. As Slughorn turned the corner, he looked at Hermione.

"I swear, I've no idea how he keeps his stomach above his belt. Permanent levitation, you think?"

"Honestly, Harry, you're as bad as Ron sometimes…"

The two friends set off in silence, Harry still mulling over Slughorn's advice.

"Are you going to go to the party then?" Hermione asked, breaking his concentration. He paused for a moment before replying, tuning back into a conversational mindset, then shrugged.

"Probably, yeah. Should be good. You?"

"I've got to. Ginny got an invitation, I said I'd go with her."

"Really?" Harry asked, his brow creasing. "How did she manage that?"

"She hexed Pansy Parkinson on the Express," Hermione explained, her tone dripping disapproval. "Slughorn saw, and apparently congratulated her rather than issuing detention!"

"Yeah, well he doesn't really give a stuff what you do so long as you're doing it well and not hurting anyone," Harry replied with a chuckle. "What hex was it?"

"Her favourite," Hermione replied with a slight air of frustration. "It's as if she doesn't know anything else!"

Harry walked for a moment in silence, relishing the image of Parkinson spewing tiny little bats out of her nose. He imagined that the stuck up girl would have been extremely embarrassed by it.

"Oh, would you stop grinning about it," Hermione snapped. "It's not funny!"

"It kind of is."

"She was lucky not to get detention, she really was. Any other teacher…"

"I can't imagine Parkinson was terribly happy about the invitation," Harry said. At that, Hermione finally smiled.

"Not at all, no. She's been trying to get into the Club for years."

"My heart bleeds for her." They had reached the entrance hall, and they merged with the crowd of students heading for lunch in the Great Hall. Beams of sunlight cascaded down through the enchanted ceiling and windows, creating little spotlights over the tables. As they sat down at a convenient spot, the ceiling shimmered, rippling to reflect changes outside the castle – in this instance, two of the Beauxbatons horses whirling in and out of the sparse clouds. He watched them for a moment, while Hermione examined a plate of beef sandwiches with interest.

"What do you think they're like to ride?" he asked, still watching them. Hermione followed his gaze, then looked away with a shrug.

"I shudder to think, to be quite honest. I'm sure it's perfectly horrible."

"You would say that," Harry said, finally looking away to reach across the table for a slice of pork pie. A few sandwiches and a substantial sausage roll soon joined it on his plate; a typically light lunch at Hogwarts.

"If you knew that, then why did you ask?" Hermione pointed out, not unreasonably. They ate in silence for a moment, recuperating from the day's work. "Ron was going on about putting his name in for the Tournament last night."

"Has he done it?" Harry asked with interest. Hermione shook her head.

"Not as far as I know. I'm not sure he will, to be honest; he'd be terrified of his brothers finding out."

"I'd have thought they'd be pleased he was trying?"

"And if he tried and failed? Fred and George would never let him forget it."

"I suppose…shame really."

Hermione's eyebrows shot up. "A shame? I don't want to see him in the Tournament!"

"Why not?"

"Because it's dangerous! Remember what happened last year?"

Harry winced at the reminder. The previous year's Tournament had taken place at Durmstrang, but although he had not been there to see it, everyone in the school knew what had happened. Anton Sullivan, the Hogwarts champion, had ended up in a fight with a wraith and come out on bottom. His injuries hadn't been life threatening, but they had effectively put him out of the running. Even when he had returned, several months later and empty handed, he had used a cane to walk.

It was thoughts like that, more than anything else, that made him doubt the wisdom of entering.

"I'm sure they've taken precautions this year…" he said, not voicing his thoughts for the moment. Hermione did not look convinced.

"They can only do so much. I really hope nobody I know gets chosen."

Harry looked down, giving his lunch far more attention than it strictly required. He hoped that he was the picture of nonchalance, but something about his manner obviously telegraphed what he was thinking across to his friend.

"Harry…"

"Yes?"

"You're not thinking of entering, are you?" She had a worried, almost pleading expression on her face. Harry shook his head.

"I doubt it. Slughorn was talking to me about it, and I think my dad would like it. Not really me though."

"Of course it isn't, you're far too sensible," Hermione replied, her expression lightening with relief. "Honestly, the whole thing is crazy."

As his friend went back to her food, Harry couldn't help but feel a little put out. Self-deprecation was one thing, but for one of his best friends to all but flat out state that they thought he wasn't Champion material…scowling slightly to himself, he busied himself with his own meal. He was being ridiculous.

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Oddly, Harry found himself the subject of a certain amount of scrutiny over the next couple of days. The Triwizard Tournament and potential competitors were the main topic of discussion, and by extension the various students of Durmstrang and Beauxbatons. However, since they largely kept themselves to themselves, with the exception of meal times (although they were hardly chatty even then), very little was really known about them. It seemed to most people that the best source of information would be the Slug Club's first meeting. Harry, as one of the more long-term members, was swiftly decided to be the one most likely to sniff out any juicy gossip, although it was notable that very few people who actually had more than a passing acquaintance with him believed this.

It left Harry feeling somewhat uncomfortable. He wasn't used to being the centre of attention, in fact hadn't been since the end of his first year, when he had acquired some temporary interest over what precisely had occurred beneath the boat-house. The interest had quickly faded, however, once it became apparent that he had been too scared to really remember anything.

And so it came to pass that he found himself having his first conversation with Parvati Patil since second year, when they had been paired on a Charms project.

"He's about your height, brilliant blue eyes, and there's a little scar on his cheek – could you get me his name?"

"Well, I – "

Parvati pouted prettily, an expression that suited her rather well. Harry floundered for an appropriate response, but eventually settled for weakly asking her, "Why do you need me to do it? Hermione will be going, and she's in Gryffindor, you'll see her first…"

She tossed her hair back, sniffing disparagingly. "Hermione doesn't pay any attention to boys, Harry. Besides, you're far more reliable. I can tell." She put her hand on his upper arm, still smiling at him. Once again, Harry found himself not knowing quite what to say.

"I…yeah, sure. Why not?" he finally replied, giving up. Parvati actually squeaked, beamed at him and then strolled away. Harry watched her go, very confused. Then he set off, having been waylaid on his way back to the common room. Slughorn's party was actually starting in a couple of hours, and the Potions master liked his guests to be well presented.

An hour or so later, he was putting the finishing touches to his cravat, an item of clothing he particularly disliked but which was always appreciated, and discussing the encounter with Anthony.

"I mean, how I am reliable when getting boy's names is concerned?" Harry said, his frustration seeping into his voice. Anthony, sitting on the bed opposite him, sniggered quietly.

"I'd be a little insulted by that if I were you," he said. "Casting aspersions on your masculinity like that…"

"Eh?" Harry replied, snagging a loop of the cravat in his teeth to hold it in place.

"Well, she obviously thinks you'd do a good job at chatting this guy up. Or hey!" Anthony smirked. "Maybe she was chatting you up!"

"Pretty roundabout way of doing it, don't you think? And why would she be chatting me up?"

"I'm just positing a theory."

"Your theory is flawed."

"You're flawed."

Harry paused mid-response, staring at his friend. "That's…not a good come back. You do know that, right?"

"Eh." Anthony waved a hand dismissively. "Get to your party. I'll see you later."

Shaking his head, Harry left the dorm. There were quite a few of his fellow Ravenclaws heading to the party; while Slughorn was notoriously interested cultivating students who had (or could potentially gain) useful contacts for him, he was a firm admirer of simple magical talent – his argument being that only truly talented wizards or witches would progress to useful positions. Cho Chang was walking out of the door, hand in hand with her new boyfriend, Roger Davies. She was wearing quite a tight, Muggle style dress, and Harry found himself almost subconsciously slowing his pace, the better to admire the view. As soon as he realised what he was doing, his cheeks started to burn, and he quickened his pace, overtaking them with a slightly guilty smile.

The party was, as ever, down in the dungeons. Since the majority of the rooms down there were both spacious and abandoned – despite repeated requests from Argus Filch to Dumbledore – they were the perfect location for the cosy gatherings that Slughorn favoured, the better to ingratiate himself with each and every guest.

On this occasion, when Harry arrived, it quickly became apparent that Slughorn had decided that the dungeons were not going to be big enough. The walls stretched on as far as the eye could see, the tell-tale haziness of expansion charms hovering over them. The room was ringed with tables bending under the weight of the buffet plates, pleasant aromas wafting from every corner. As he looked around, a pixie fluttered past, supporting a tray of champagne flutes precariously above its head. Harry snatched one, and the pixie chittered gratefully as its burden lessened.

The Durmstrang students were immediately obvious; they clearly felt that a Scottish autumn necessitated their thickest fur-lined cloaks, and Harry had not seen any of them without the garment since they had arrived at the school a week previously. Most of those present were wizards, their stern bearing apparently highly attractive judging by the crowd of witches standing near them. A few of the wizards were making overtures at conversation, but clearly didn't speak much English, faltering over certain words and not bothering with others at all. The witches seemed to find this highly amusing, but were making no attempt to rectify the issue. Harry rolled his eyes at the display, and drew his wand, sticking the tip just inside his ear. A few muttered words, and there was a faint ringing sound for a few seconds. He withdrew the wand, then held it to his lips, casting the spell once more. This time, the spell manifested as a salty tang on the tip of his tongue. The charm wasn't perfect, and would need regular refreshing, but in theory he ought now to be able to understand most of what was being said to him, whether it was said in French, Bulgarian, Greek or Troll.

Well, maybe not Troll.

He strolled across the room to the buffet, his ears now buzzing with conversation in various different languages. There was a whole salmon on the table, still steaming, and he helped himself to a generous slice. There was, naturally, a large crowd of guests around the table, from each different school, and Harry did his best to be sociable whilst still getting as much food as he could – Slughorn always catered lavishly, but the food did disappear quickly. The hippogriff steaks were particularly sought after, although Harry always felt slightly uneasy eating them.

"Are you really eating that?"

Harry turned to find Hermione looking at him, her face creased with distaste, and Ginny standing next to her. The younger Gryffindor was looking around the room, wide-eyed with wonder. He mumbled a greeting around the food, and Ginny giggled. Hermione tutted.

"Honestly…"

"Sorry," Harry said, swallowing hastily. "Want some?"

"No I do not! It's disgusting!"

"Can I try a bit?" Ginny asked tentatively, annoying Hermione's irritated glare. Harry grinned, and offered the plate to her. She took a bite of the steak, and promptly grimaced.

"Not a fan?"

"It's so…

"Morally repellent?" Hermione suggested.

"I was going to say smoky, actually," Ginny snapped back.

"It's an acquired taste," Harry agreed. "The salmon's lovely though."

"Oh, is there still some left?" Hermione said, instantly perking up. "Excuse me…"

She left the two of them alone, Ginny still frowning slightly at the aftertaste. Harry plucked another glass of champagne from a passing pixie, and offered it to her. She took it with a grateful smile.

"Thanks. I've never had hippogriff before. We can't – well, you know."

"It's not like we have it every week," Harry said with a slight laugh. "Also, my mum thinks more like Hermione."

Ginny rolled her eyes. "Merlin, I love her to bits but she's been wittering at me all afternoon about this party. 'Don't drink this, don't eat that, don't dress like that and don't talk to them…' Honestly, she's driving me crazy. It's just a buffet!"

"Yeah, but how often do you mingle over champagne with Draco Malfoy?" Harry asked, tilting his head towards the other side of the room. Ginny followed his gaze, and sighed when she spotted Malfoy standing there, lording over a group of admirers. Malfoy's eyes narrowed as he realised he was being scrutinized, and he looked away pointedly. Ginny laughed.

"God, he's so pompous, isn't he?"

"In the blood, yes."

Hermione suddenly reappeared, clutching a plate laden with food. She flushed at Harry and Ginny's stares.

"Hermione…please don't take this the wrong way, but I think you've been spending too much time around my brother."

Hermione scowled. "It saves me having to go back up later. Trust me, it's sensible."

"Well, who am I to ignore such good advice?" Ginny teased. She placed her champagne glass, now empty, on a nearby table and wandered off. Looking round the room, Harry noticed that Draco Malfoy was watching the redhead intently. The Slytherin was often to be found examining the girls at Slughorn's parties lasciviously, but Harry doubted that Ginny was really the blond's type – certainly not that he would admit to. Still, maybe he did just like redheads.

"Excuse moi?"

A Beauxbatons wizard had walked up to them, a hesitant smile on his face. Harry returned the smile, reaching out to shake his hand while at the same time tutting mentally at his Tongues Charm. It was beginning to wear off already.

"Hi there! I'm Harry, this is my friend Hermione…" As Hermione shook the boy's hand, Harry surreptitiously tapped his ear with his wand, reinforcing the charm. That was the main problem with the spell; it was horribly embarrassing to reapply if it did start to wear off in the middle of a conversation, and there were only so many times you could reasonable excuse yourself.

"My name is Reynard, it is a pleasure to meet you."

"Likewise," Harry said, smiling warmly. Reynard's English was still stilted, but at least it was actually English now. "Are you enjoying the party?"

"Very much," Reynard replied. "The food is delicious! Do you have it often?"

"Not really," Hermione said, looking slightly amused. "Professor Slughorn likes to reward talent though."

"Of course. We do not really have any professors like him at Beauxbatons," Reynard explained. "He seems very friendly."

"Mostly," Harry said, hedging slightly. It probably wasn't the time or place to let Hermione go off on one of her rants about the pros and cons of the Slug Club (she herself only really tolerating it for the chance at a more intellectual discussion than she tended to get after curfew, and of course the significantly better food).

"Are either of you going to enter the Tournament?"

Harry started to reply, but Hermione cut him off, rather too confidently. "I don't think so. We're both rather more academically minded, I'm afraid. Are you?"

"Of course!" He looked slightly offended by the question. "It is a great chance for me. One of my ancestors was Champion, when he was at Beauxbatons."

"Oh, really? Which Tournament?"

"Seventeen ninety two."

"Seventeen…" Hermione frowned. "That was the last year the Tournament took place, wasn't it? Until now, of course."

"Yes." Reynard looked slightly embarrassed. "He died fighting a hydra."

"Oh." There was an awkward moment of silence. "I'm sorry about that," Hermione finally offered. To Harry's relief, Reynard simply shrugged.

"It is all part of the fun, no?"

Harry could see that Hermione was about to say something very stinging, so he pre-empted her. "Reynard, while you're here I wonder if you could give me a bit of advice? I've been working on a spell, you see, and it seems to work better in French. The thing is, I'm not really sure about the incantation. Any suggestions?"

"What is it you would like the spell to do?"

The diversion worked; the three of them spent the next hour or so discussing various permutations of linguistics and magical theory. Ginny re-joined them after ten minutes at the buffet, but the conversation was a little dry for her tastes, and she soon wandered off again. By the time Reynard had bid them farewell, Harry had a fair few ideas of how to improve the spell, and was itching to leave the party to try them out. It was barely nine o'clock though, and he knew Slughorn would be disappointed if guests started leaving so early. Besides, he was actually having fun.

The party was by now in full swing. The different school groups had broken up, Beauxbatons students in their fine blue robes circling the Slug Club members in all their varied finery, and even some of the fur clad Durmstrang crowd had deigned to join the dancing. The food had by now mostly been consumed, and the tables has been Vanished to make more room for the dancers. Harry ducked to the side, content to watch the others rather than join in. He was happy to bob around to the Wyrd Sisters, but he had tried the waltz before, and rapidly concluded he was possessed of more than the traditional number of left feet.

That was the plan, at least. Someone gripped his arm, and before he knew what was happening he found himself in the middle of the dance-floor, surrounded by twirling couples. Ginny was manoeuvring his arms into the appropriate positions, and wearing a mischievous grin.

"Ginny…" he started to protest, but she cut him off.

"Oh, come on. Lighten up! No-one else is going to dance with me, are they?"

"I'm sure that's not true!"

"You're sweet," she told him with a smile, "but let's face it, I don't really know anyone here apart from you and Hermione. And can you really see her dancing with me?"

"When you put it like that…" Harry muttered wearily. "One dance. That's your lot."

"Thank you," she said with a smile, her eyes sparkling.

It wasn't as bad as he thought it would be. Although he was next useless at the dancing, Ginny was surprisingly good, and happy to take the lead. In the end, he managed to restrain himself to only tripping over Ginny's feet once, and his own twice. By the time the orchestra brought the movement to a close, Ginny's cheeks were flushed with merriment, and he had to admit he had quite enjoyed the dance.

He sketched Ginny a polite bow as they parted, before joining in the applause for the orchestra. She responded with a curtsey, which looked horribly inappropriate coming from her.

"You're not as bad as you think," she said as they made their way off the dance-floor. Harry brushed the praise off, slightly embarrassed, but she persisted. "You are! You're going to cut quite the dash at the Ball."

"Oh! I'd forgotten that," Harry confessed. "I might not go, to be honest."

"Oh, why not?" Ginny exclaimed. "Come on, you've got to go. It'll be your last chance, you can't miss it."

"But I don't really dance…"

"So? You can still have a good time – hey, watch it!"

Ginny staggered slightly as someone barged past her. They didn't hang around, or even apologise, and Harry was just preparing to call after them to come back when Ginny suddenly fell to the floor, clutching her face and her eyes wide with horror. Immediately, Harry knelt beside her, but he quickly recoiled.

Something under her hands was hissing.

"Ginny, what the hell?"

She shot him a look of fearful desperation, and he gently prised her hands apart. Then he yelped: a tiny snake was slipping from her nose, and when her hands moved it lashed out at him, jaws wide. He stared at it for a moment, dumbfounded, and then realisation dawned. He cast his gaze over his shoulder, and his suspicions were confirmed. Draco Malfoy stood at the edge of the dance-floor, slightly behind the gathering crowd of onlookers. The Slytherin was smirking coldly, and his wand was in his hand. He mouthed something, but all Harry could make out was 'Pansy'.

A sudden jolt of fury washed over Harry, and he shot to his feet. His wand was in his hand without any real conscious decision, so fast that he might as well have successfully cast his new spell for the first time. Amusement glinted in Malfoy's eyes, and Harry went to raise his wand, to curse the Slytherin as best he could, but before he could think of a suitable spell Slughorn had appeared.

"What on Earth is going on? Oh dear, Miss Weasley…"

He eased her head back, his jowls wobbling slightly as he leant in to examine her. His task was complicated by her hands; she would not take them away from her nose. When Harry looked back at the crowd, Malfoy had disappeared.

"Miss Weasley, if you don't take your hands away I'm afraid I'm not going to be able to do anything. Do you understand?"

Ginny's only response was a whimper, and Harry looked back at her, casting Malfoy from his mind. For the moment. "Can't we get her out of here, Professor? There's so many people."

Slughorn looked up, and only then seemed to realise that there was an audience. His face creased with displeasure, although whether from the disturbance to the party or the fact that none of them were offering assistance Harry could not say. "Quite right, m'boy. My office will do for now, I think. Come along, Miss Weasley."

Ginny consented to be helped to her feet, Slughorn holding her hand and her other still covering her face. The hissing was louder now, and Harry gained the horrible impression that there was now more than one snake. He followed them, grabbing Hermione as they walked past her and dragging her along. She was staring at her younger friend in horror.

"Harry, what the hell happened?"

"Malfoy," he told her shortly. He didn't really need to say anything else. Behind them, music and conversation started up again.

Once in Slughorn's office, Ginny finally lowered her hand, and it was immediately obvious why she hadn't wanted anyone seeing her face. Two snakes were dangling from her nostrils, hissing and snapping at Slughorn's fingers as he tried to examine them. Hermione gasped, and Ginny ducked her head.

"Hmm. Fascinating…" Slughorn leant back and began stroking his moustache. Harry let him think in silence for a moment, then tried to jog him into something more.

"Professor?"

"Oh, yes. Seems to be a variation on that clever little hex Miss Weasley likes – what is it, the Bat-Snot Hex?"

"Bat Bogey," Hermione supplied, looking at Ginny with pity. Harry nodded his agreement.

"Of course. Well, shouldn't be too hard to fix. Finite Incantatem!"

Slughorn's theory was right; the snakes vanished instantly, and Ginny immediately brightened up.

"That better, Miss Weasley?"

"Yes, Professor! Thank you!"

"Don't mention it, my dear," Slughorn told her expansively. "Now, why don't we head back to the party? I think there's still a bit of food left, and certainly something to drink. I've always found a drink to be the best pick me up!"

Ginny offered him a weak smile, but Harry wasn't satisfied. "Sir, it was Draco Malfoy."

"What was?"

"This!" He waved an arm at Ginny in explanation. "He hexed her, I think he was retaliating for the Express."

"Ah, yes. Of course." Slughorn looked at Ginny appraisingly. "Well, no harm done, is there Miss Weasley? All fixed up and not even a scratch."

"Not a…" Harry stared at the Professor, appalled. "She had snakes crawling out of her nose!"

"Slithering, I think you'll find," Slughorn corrected him with a jocular grin. It didn't take long for his amusement to disappear, withering under the force of Harry's expression. "Harry, this is Hogwarts. Do you know how many children hex each other every day? If we gave out full punishments to every student who cast a spell in anger, half the school would be in detention at any given moment! It would be utter madness, my boy, utter madness."

"But he – "

"And, might I add, Miss Weasley would herself have been in detention for much of the term so far. Or are we applying double standards?"

Harry stood there for a moment, staring at Slughorn. Then he slumped. He suppose, when put like that, the professor had a point. It wasn't one that he liked, but he couldn't refute it. The professor spent another couple of minutes making sure that Ginny was ok, and then departed. Harry watched him go in sullen fashion. The party mood had rather deserted him, and judging by the expressions on Ginny and Hermione's faces, they felt very much the same.

"Come on. Let's head off." Ginny raised her eyes to look at him, and he smiled. "Rubbish party anyway. And all the decent food was gone."

She laughed weakly, and stood up. "I don't really feel like dancing anymore, it's true."

"I'll walk you back to your common room."

"Harry, that's really not necessary," Hermione started to say. He just looked at her, and she fell silent.

The corridors on the way back were quiet, curfew having long since come into effect. All of Slughorn's guests were advised to carry their invitations to and from the party, in case they ran into Filch. Oddly, Harry had never seen the caretaker on one of these occasions. Maybe he just hid himself away for the night, muttering to Mrs Norris about the debauchery he no doubt thought the parties consisted of.

They stopped outside the Fat Lady, who did not seem happy to see a Ravenclaw so close to the Gryffindor sanctum so late at night. The trio ignored her.

"So. Are all the parties like that?"

Hermione shook her head at Ginny's question. "No, they're usually much more civilised. I'm sure Slughorn will be yelling at Malfoy over it, even if it's just because he disturbed the dancing."

"Good." The younger girl shivered. "That spell was creepy."

"I don't see how it's different to yours, Ginny…" Hermione replied, taking her customary role as devil's advocate. Harry glared at her.

"Come on, Hermione. Ginny had bloody snakes crawling out of her nose. That's messed up."

"I don't disagree, but…" Hermione cut herself off with a weary sigh. "It doesn't really matter. I'm too tired to argue. The scariest thing about it for me is how quickly he came up with it. He's a far better wizard than I thought."

"What do you mean?" Harry said, his brow furrowing with confusion. Hermione tutted, a sharp and irritating sound.

"Isn't it obvious? He's made that spell up in the last couple of weeks, probably just since the start of term. Alright, he's just modifying an already existing spell for a similar effect, but still. Impressive stuff, if you think about it."

"Oh. Yeah." Harry blinked slowly. He hadn't thought about it like that, but Hermione was right. In six years at Hogwarts, he had come to be passably familiar with all the traditional hexes and jinxes, but he had never seen Malfoy's spell before. That alone was a significant indicator suggesting that he had devised it himself, never mind the parallels with Ginny's favoured spell. And, sad to say, that was almost the worst part of the evening.

Draco Malfoy had successfully created a spell before he had.

The goodnights and goodbyes passed in a haze, although he managed to be polite, and gave both girls a hug before walking away. He could hear the Fat Lady closing behind them, and could almost feel her glaring at him as he left.

It was stupid really. He wasn't particularly competitive, and if Hermione had managed anything with her spell creation he would have been delighted for her. And while he didn't get on with Malfoy, a fact which put him in common with about ninety five percent of the student body, and at least half the teaching faculty, they had never really clashed, that one time in their first year aside. He also didn't like to consider what it said about him if he was more annoyed at being outshone academically than at one of his friends being hurt.

But then, that wasn't really an issue. Ginny was fine, physically at least, and while he had snapped at Hermione's comments, the older witch had a point: Malfoy hadn't done anything that Ginny hadn't done herself. It was just the last straw, really. It was easy to dismiss Malfoy most of the time, thinking of him as nothing more than a preening little brat with an inflated opinion of himself – and then, once in a while, he would do something that suggested he actually did have a pretty decent brain underneath it all. No doubt he was feeling particularly pleased with himself right now. The thought of watching his smug little grin in a week or so, if he was chosen as Champion…

Harry stopped dead, and an unusually unpleasant smile started to spread across his face.

Now that was an idea.