Harry had never been more fed up in his life, though he seemed to be at one of those stages where every day seemed worse than the one before.
Bellatrix continued her vendetta against him, eyes narrowed against Rodolphus' puppyish yet courtly behaviour over her, and the lack of bruises on Harry's own face.
His academic workload was only increasing, and he had to maintain a decent pass in all of his subjects to continue his scholarship; that, coupled with all the chores the Host Club were piling on him, had him asleep the second his head touched the pillow in the evenings.
Riddle had made no mention of the conversation they'd had after the whole Lestrange event, though occasionally there was a certain gleam to his eyes when the other watched him.
Somehow, despite the fact his umbrella had broken on the walk to school that morning, none of those things were as bad as this.
The 'Dark Prince', as the bastard liked to be called, was lounging to the side, a small, vibrant smirk tugging at the corners of his lips, whilst the rest of them were trying not to snicker.
Harry wanted to shrink into a cold, dark corner somewhere, but he tried to bolster himself, strolling forwards with a smile on his face which he hoped didn't look too forced.
He let his fingers drag across Blaise's knee.
"I was hoping you'd choose me as your host …" he started, voice low and velvety (refusing to admit he was in any way mimicking Riddle's tone), "we're in the same English class, aren't we? I loved your point on how Iago could be considered a more nuanced and developed version of Don Juan from –"
They'd already burst out laughing, and Harry's teeth gritted, blushing furiously as he glared at them – Riddle in particular. Riddle and his damnable smirk.
"Oh, shut up. You're the one forcing me to do this!"
"I thought you were being stubborn against host practice, not that you are such a terrible flirt," Tom drawled. "I mean, I can see what you're trying to do, bringing up the theoretical small details which show you pay attention, but …"
"You need to relax a bit," Rabastan instructed, trying and failing to smother his snickers. "You look like you're being tortured."
"I am being tortured," Harry muttered.
"Try again," Riddle instructed, pulling his face straight again but for the vindictively amused shine to his gaze. "You're getting better than the first pick-up line. Or when you 'accidentally' fell into him."
Harry shot him another foul look – not sure if he wanted to give up and avoid making an even greater idiot of himself, or be so successfully charming that they all had to swallow back their laughs and mockery and be in awe instead.
Either way, he didn't like the thought of Riddle being better than him, even at something like this. And, stubbornness aside, being a host really would get his debt paid off quicker – and at this point, unless he wanted to skivvy for them for the rest of his life, that could only be a good thing.
Besides, they had a ball event coming up or something, which apparently he had to be 'prepared' for. They hadn't reached dancing lessons yet, but Harry was pretty sure he'd somehow manage to screw those up too.
He turned back to Blaise, who gave him what was supposed to be an encouraging smile, but it did nothing to hide his slightly disdaining amusement.
God, at this point, he must just seem like a joke to these people – as if the sole importance of life was to be able to flirt anyway! For god's sake…
He'd never had time for such things; he had more important things to focus on – like surviving school, the Dursleys, and making sure he had enough money to eat, among other things.
"Maybe if we try another position or scenario?" Zevi suggested lightly.
Blaise smirked but stood up obligingly, hands tucked behind his back.
"So, Harry, tell me something interesting about yourself?"
Harry's mind immediately froze, even as Zabini pulled a flawlessly interested and earnest expression, head tilting to one side.
If there was anything at all interesting about him in the first place, any possible anecdote vanished the second someone asked him about it.
Of course, they'd probably be very interested to know he was a Potter, but he had no desire to go there.
"Er … um … there's nothing interesting about me. I'd … er … much rather hear about you?"
Malfoy sighed, dropping his head into his hands.
"This is painful. I'm actually starting to feel secondhand embarrassment."
Harry scowled at him, opening his mouth to say something scathing – but just then Riddle jumped lightly to his feet and swept over to him, brushing very close, with that shark-smile on his lips.
"Oh, I'm sure that's not true, Harrison," he purred. One hand tucked an errant, too-long hair behind Harry's ears, just grazing his hand over his skin. "But I suppose I did always love a man of mystery."
Harry absolutely did not squeak and take a step back at how quickly the other moved close. It made no difference; Riddle seemed to have anticipated the movement, simply stepping forward with him and cupping his cheek softly.
"Everyone has something interesting about them, and I think it's very brave that you've been fending all for yourself in the world." The other stared at him, intent, not shifting his gaze once from Harry's own eyes. "Maybe you should let me and the rest of the Host Club look after you." For all that the words were soft, there was a rather devilish smile suddenly on Riddle's lips that spoke of a very different type of 'care'.
Somehow, the whole situation, and especially Riddle's insistence on his own superiority, riled him up more. Maybe he was just embarrassed by his own reaction, and the way his breath had caught in his throat.
He gave a sweet smile in response, craning up on his toes and letting his lips press lightly against the pale shell of Tom's ear.
"Maybe you should, my lord," he drawled. "It might stop you from feeling threatened, which your constant efforts to put me down and make me the inferior suggests you are. It's adorable, prince."
Riddle stilled, before he chuckled softly, fingers tangling tightly into his hair now to keep him where he'd moved up onto his toes to reach, and tilted his head, lips hovering above his own.
"I'm flattered," the other murmured. "Also rather interested to note that I seem to be the only one to evoke flirtation in you, however viciously it is meant. Maybe the Lestranges were right. Wouldn't be the first time I've had an admirer, and I confess you're a rather lovely one to have."
Harry bunched his fists in the front of Riddle's shirt to keep his balance, the roots of his hair tugging.
"I'm rather interested to note how obsessed you seem to be on the topic of if I fancy you or not, and your insistence to the point of blackmail of getting me to join your little club," he returned.
He kept his eyes fixed on Riddle, refusing to look away, and to his surprise, saw a slow smile spread across the other's lips. Tom's mouth ghosted across Harry's ear for a moment, breath caressing the sensitive skin.
"Very good. There's hope for you yet."
His hair was abruptly released, but he kept hold of Riddle's shirt for a moment longer.
Right. Test. Flirting.
"That was actually quite good. You're hot when you get pissed off, Evans."
He let his hands drop, gave a smirk back as if that had been his intention all along.
"It's been known to happen."
He didn't like the half-glance Tom gave him, though the Slytherin did nothing to comment, merely turning away and smoothing down his wrinkled shirt.
"Rebel type. He's so much of a caricature of it already, that it's laughable," Tom stated to the others, to hums of appreciation and murmurs of agreement.
"I'm sorry … rebel type?" Harry's brow furrowed in confusion.
Malfoy picked at his nails.
"Idealistic, brash hero, snarky to cover up any vulnerability shown in upcoming subplots and in defence of his tragic past. Rebelling against the world, free-spirited and fiercely independent, ends up having intense sexual tension with the 'villain' whether canonically or through subtext. Refuses to beg for anything, yada yada. You're like the rebel trope personified. Sort of like James Bond in the new movie. It's so overdone it's practically cliché, but people like it."
"I'm never going to understand the way you people work."
He supposed it was better than the maid costume.
Hermione Granger was undoubtedly nervous, but she couldn't just leave Harry without checking on him.
It seemed that her best friend had been growing paler and paler by the day, exhausted though he tried to hide it. It was worrying. She was half fearful that he would end up just disappearing under the strain, shrinking and shrinking until there was just a wisp left.
She wasn't the type of girl to feel fond of a Host Club, though she supposed she could see the appeal of it to some. She didn't like to judge, but … she didn't understand why anyone would be interested in such an obviously fake relationship. They were literally hiring out attractive faces and calling it love.
She much preferred a proper connection.
She steeled herself as she walked into the room, mouth dry.
The lounge area they used was one of the best Hogwarts had to offer, elegantly decorated with a large view of the lake from one window. There were sofas and tables dotted around, comfortable chairs to go with them, and tea and cakes available for consumption.
It was all very classily done, and everyone in the school was buzzing for the Host Club Ball coming up, despite how they had a big test on Friday too, which was very important.
She scanned the room, trying to catch sight of him, wishing Ron had agreed to come with her – though he'd insisted he was a guy and couldn't attend a host club meeting. She personally thought that was rubbish, but she'd leave him to it.
She caught sight of Harry wedged in between Tom Riddle and Bellatrix Lestrange (widely considered to be the two most sought-after figures within the school), and had a moment of blankness as she tried to figure out how that had happened.
She also did a double-take at the sight of Harry. Whilst he still wore his glasses and overworn, slightly ill-fitting uniform around them, he apparently didn't here. His uniform looked like it could have been tailored for him, all sharp crisp lines and smooth material. The glasses were gone, and she'd never realised how much of a difference unimpeded vision to Harry's eyes could make. They'd always been a vivid green, but the lack of glass and fringe in the way did … wonders.
She blinked, slightly disorientated. She'd never thought him ugly; rather, like her, to be more plain and uninspiring.
But then, she supposed, money had the ability to make everyone look good – and she didn't mean that in a petty way.
Hermione was broken from her reverie when a hand came to rest lightly on her shoulder.
She turned, to find herself face to face with a charming smile.
"Hello … I don't believe I've seen you around here before." She recognised Zevi Prince immediately. Dark eyes, dark hair, and a slim figure. He almost reminded her of Riddle, but he was more … contained in his aura. There were small ink smudges and callouses on his fingers, from holding pens for so long. He'd been on her team in the maths challenge, and whilst he was supposed to be very clever, they'd never really talked.
His eyes followed where her gaze had been, and paused on Harry for a moment, before considering her.
"If you wish to talk to any of the hosts, you tend to have to book a slot beforehand," he said mildly. "Come, let me get you a drink, and I'll show you how it works around here, Hermione."
He remembered her name? Of course, she knew the little details like that were a trick too, but…
His hand slipped into hers as he nonchalantly pulled her towards a table.
This was not how it was supposed to go.
Harry could practically feel the silent loathing radiating off Bellatrix as she leaned over him slightly, one hand playing with a strand of his hair, the other resting on the upper end of his knees. Tom's posture was mirrored; whether deliberately or not, it was definitely drawing attention, and he felt slightly trapped between them.
Miss Black was obviously using him as a device to get at Riddle, and Riddle … well, he didn't actually know about Riddle. It seemed the man was running full tilt with his idea of two contrasting tropes, and the whole rebel thing.
Not that it was actually difficult for Harry to go along with it. He didn't even have to act, which unnerved him a little. Riddle leaned in, he made snarky comments, and their audience practically swooned.
Riddle was carrying most of the weight of the whole act, in his opinion, and maybe in other circumstances he would feel guilty over that. But, well, if he was honest, he wasn't sure what 'trope' he would be falling into if left to his own devices.
But as the pads of their fingers traced idle patterns and circles in his skin, he knew this was war.
He just didn't know where he fit on the battlefield.
At least it was going to be a memorable year.