Warning! Gore ahead!

Chapter Twenty-One (Or: More Than One Way to Skin a Cat)

By the time Thursdays rolled around, most of the students were restless, itching for the weekend and the respite from classes. James was just the same as everyone else in that regard, but figured he had a bit of an early reprieve with his first quidditch practice coming up that evening.

There was something odd happening – he couldn't quite figure out what was going on.

All week, people had been staring at him – nothing new there – but the stares themselves were throwing him off. Some were curious, others the usual spite-filled glares, but others were – they were pitying! Why the hell were people looking at him like he was some pathetic little kitten that had just been kicked! He didn't understand. People were completely nuts.

And still others were mocking – granted what they were mocking him for this week he didn't know. Didn't really care to know, either.

When he walked into the Great Hall for breakfast he was met with silence, then the whispers broke out intermixed with laughter.

"Hey, Harry!"

James only just barely kept his snarl in check as some ditzy looking blond girl came up to him with a shy smile. "Um. . . it's James. If you don't mind?"

"James." The girl smiled. "I'm Hannah."

"Er. . . Good to meet you?" James blinked at her.

"I just wanted to say hi!" And just like that, she was gone, her pig-tails bobbing as she bounced on her way to the Hufflepuff table.

"That was – bizarre." James scrunched his nose.

He sat down at his usual place at the Slytherin table, ignoring everyone that was still staring at him. The charm on his hair had worn off the previous week and he was fairly certain he didn't have anything on his face – there was nothing obviously wrong.

He looked up the table, but his fellow Slytherins seemed just as confused as he was.

"What's all that about?" Flint demanded from a few seats away.

"Haven't the foggiest." James shrugged. "It's not like I can predict their mood-swings."

Flint snorted, shaking his head. "Something weird is going on – I bet the Weasleys are behind it."

James scowled, stabbing at his eggs. No – Fred and George weren't behind this, whatever this was. They had plans later that night after curfew – he'd know if they had something planned. He was fairly certain.

The post came, and things got stranger. A whole slew of owls came at him – swooping in just close enough to drop flowers over him. Flowers! A whole lot of them. One owl dropped a huge bouquet right into his plate, a flashing card beaming the words 'Sometimes you just need to stop and smell the roses!' in bright, neon colors. They kept coming until he was swimming in the things, his nose itching from too much pollen and he was fairly certain some were tangled in his hair.

He changed his mind – Fred and George had something to do with this – they were laughing the loudest out of everyone. He stuck his tongue out at them, standing up and shaking his head to loose the flower petals from his hair.

"Ahh! You shouldn't have! It's not even my birthday!" James drawled, ducking as another wave of owls descended on him, dumping more flowers on his head – violets and daisies, sunflowers and tulips and daffodils – it looked like a flower shop had upchucked right in his lap.

"I don't get it." Spawn leaned over and stared at the mound of flowers spilling off the table and scattered around the floor. "What kind of prank is this?"

"A harmless one, it seems." Snape drawled in response as he approached the table. "Which is a first if the Weasley beasts are indeed involved."

James didn't agree with that at all, but couldn't exactly argue that he had inside information about Weasley pranks. "Yep – no harm done except to my pride. Flowers? Why flowers?"

Much to his annoyance, the insanity of the student population continued all day. All day long, random students would present him with flowers. Absolutely no explanation was given. Then, there were the students that went out of their way to talk to him – people he'd never said a word to before, people who would have completely ignored him a week earlier were coming up to him, introducing themselves and making small talk.

It was ridiculous.

"I've no idea what's happening." James grumbled at Hermione. Classes had just ended, and James had barricaded himself in the very back of the Library. Hermione just shook her head.

"I'm not sure – but Fred and George were responsible for the flowers. They got a bunch of people to agree to send you flowers and not say why. I think my roommates are in on it too, but they won't tell me what's going on. They know we hang out."

James nodded, eyes narrowing as Diggory approached him. "If you give me flowers, I will be very cross with you."

"No flowers." Cedric grinned. "I promise."

"Right." James sniffed. "What is all that about, anyway?"

"Oh. Just that word has gotten around how much you enjoy picking flowers – after all, mum was going on about what a sweet boy you are, so polite and charming and such a gentle heart. . . How happy you were to keep her company and pick flowers with her."

"What!?" James squeaked. "She said all that!? But – now everyone's going to think I'm some pansy boy!"

Hermione giggled. "Picking flowers? Really, James?"

"She asked if I wanted to go walking with her to help her pick some fresh flowers for the dining room." James pouted. "Of course I said yes."

Cedric was openly laughing. "She probably wrote all her friends. She has quite a lot, you know. And she – er. . . doesn't really understand how embarrassing she can be."

"I suppose you know that well, huh?" James groaned, hiding his face in his hands. "Really? I can't believe – this is not happening."

"It wouldn't be so bad if Fred and George hadn't gotten hold of it, I don't think. But Mrs. Weasley probably wrote them just like mum wrote me." Cedric explained. "And Fred and George – they think everything's a joke."

"Wait – so what? Half the students got letters from their parents like the one you got?" James demanded.

"Not half – Merlin! Mum has a lot of friends, but not that many. A third, maybe." It was delivered with a smirk.

"Oh, bullocks!" James let his head slam heavily on the table. He had not anticipated this. Not at all. But it was fine – he could still work with this. He just had to figure out a way to use this to his advantage, play it up.

"Not what you were expecting, I imagine." Cedric said.

"What do you mean?" James asked quietly, straightening up so he could stare at the Hufflepuff. The older boy was staring at him, still amused but his eyes were narrowed – calculating.

"I might have bought it, you know. If you had actually been as desperate for a friend as my mum said you were. But you obviously aren't the type to be put off that people don't like you. You honestly don't care what they think. It doesn't add up."

"Is that so?" James asked coolly.

"It is." Cedric responded deftly. "Not that I doubt you're having a rough time of it in Slytherin – there's always someone sorted there that doesn't measure up. It's probably worse for you, just because of who you are. It makes sense that you'd need to branch out to the other houses – and it's not like you'd have an honest chance there."

Hermione snorted indelicately and muttered something that sounded suspiciously like 'I told you so.'

James fell silent, trying to pinpoint where he'd gone wrong.

"It's not what you did wrong." Cedric continued, guessing his thoughts correctly. "It's that you did everything too right. It was too perfect."

"I see." James nodded, though he felt like the bottom had dropped out of his stomach. "What now?"

"Now? Nothing." Cedric shrugged. "You've bitten off more than you can chew as it is – mum is relentless, and dad was quite impressed with you. You'll be invited over for the Hols, of course."

"That's not what I meant."

"You did what you had to, just like anyone else would do if they had the opportunity and brains enough to pull it off."

"You're not angry?"

"Would you be?"

James considered that, meeting Cedric's gaze unflinchingly. "No. I'd be – either I'd be impressed or amused, maybe a little irritated depending on the game. But mad? No. Everyone works for what's in their own interest."

"First rule of politics – everyone has ulterior motives." Cedric grinned. "Either you accept that or you'll get trodden all over."

"Your dad teach you that?" James asked.

"Of course." Cedric stood up to leave. "Who taught you?"

"The law of the jungle." James answered cryptically. Cedric arched an eyebrow, the corner of his mouth quirking in amusement as he left.

"Do you smell garlic?" Hermione asked suddenly, sniffing and wrinkling her nose. "I've been catching whiffs of it since we got here."

James smelled the air, catching just the barest hint of it as well. His eyes narrowed, and he pushed himself to his feet, wandering around the book shelves to the left – he didn't find anyone, and crept further out into the open floor of Library. He caught sight of Quirrell stuttering his way through asking Madame Pince for something and knew without a doubt that the joke of a man had been eavesdropping on them just minutes before.

But why?

James went back to sit with Hermione and take a stab at his homework before quidditch practice rolled around. He shook his head at her questions and forced himself to start on his essays.


"That's a Nimbus 2000." Pucey pointed out dumbly when James showed up at the quidditch pitch twenty minutes late.

"Good job. Bravo – your observational skills – whew! I'm impressed." James rolled his eyes. "You going to tell me the first three letters of the alphabet next?"

"Um. . . A, B and C?" One of the caveman beaters – Bole maybe – provided.

James didn't even have to say anything to that, the rest of the team just stared at Cave-Bole until he flushed and looked away. Flint smirked. "So, Potter – you'll be training with me for the first half of practice. I'm going to teach you the rules of the game, run you through the warm up drills and then you and Bole are going to have a beaters war – next practice you'll be shadowing Higgs to learn the ropes as a seeker."

"Right."

"We cleared a locker out for you – you won't have a uniform until we get one ordered and there's no hurry on that. Chances are you won't be playing a game this year anyways. Did you get your standard protection gear? Gloves, arm guards and shin guards?"

James shook his head. "Didn't know I'd need them."

"And Snape didn't tell you?"

"No – he was rather put out with me that day." James shrugged. "I can order them, right?"

"Yes. Order yourself a good pair of boots while you're at it. In the meantime, you'll need something other than your school robes. They'll get in the way."

"Right."

"And Potter? Next time, you better be on time or I'll have you running laps."

James scowled, but Flint was already barking orders at the rest of the team. He wandered off towards the locker room, finding the locker marked with his name and shucked his school robes. Underneath, he was wearing a pair of faded jeans and a dark blue long-sleeved shirt. His high tops were new, ones he'd picked up the past weekend – the soles were hardly even dirty yet.

Flint didn't have anything to say about his muggle clothes, though his sneer said more than any words. As soon as James was back on the pitch he was up in the air – he hadn't taken his new broom out yet and was caught off guard by how fast it was, how easily it turned and how quickly he could stop.

Of course, the thrill completely wore off when Flint started putting him through his paces.

Practice was brutal. Two hours was a long time – both his 'tryouts' had been short, the first blitz lasting only minutes and the second, official tryout finishing within a half hour.

By the end, James was ready to drop off his broom, could barely keep a hold on his beaters bat any more – his legs ached from clenching his thighs to stay on his broom and he had blisters across his both his palms that had busted open the first hour in.

He'd been completely exhausted by the time he'd gone up against Bole – had pushed himself well past his limit and was nowhere near pleased with how badly he'd had his arse handed to him. He was bruised, and his lower lip was split from a bludger that caught the handle of his broom and sent it snapping back into his face. He felt like shit.

"It's not as easy as it looks, is it?" Flint crowed as James stumbled back towards the castle. The older boy fell in step with him. "You've got a lot of natural talent, but you've still got your work cut out for you. We'll have to build up your endurance – there's no time limit on quidditch games. They can last hours – I think the record is something like eleven days."

James didn't respond.

"You did very well today – I was expecting you to tap out after a few minutes with Bole. You looked about ready to keel over, but you just kept pushing. You sure are a stubborn little shit."

James did crack a grin at that. "So I've been told."

Flint stopped very suddenly, turning to stare intently at James. "You don't care about Slytherin, you don't care about quidditch – I get it. I know you're doing this because of our deal, and maybe, just maybe you see how being on the team is beneficial. You need to know – quidditch is hard work. It takes a lot of determination to get to the point where you can play well."

"Yeah, I got that."

"It's also important to us – to me, the team, the house – Slytherin has won the house cup every year for the past 16 years. By now you've realized that the rest of the school doesn't care for Slytherin at all – quidditch is the one, undeniable bragging right for our house. You can't lie and cheat out on the pitch – no matter how much they might hate us for it, they can't deny that we dominate the field."

James nodded slowly. "So the moral of the story is 'don't fuck it up.' Right?"

"That's right. Don't fuck this up for us, Potter. Don't you dare fuck it up."

"I wouldn't." James started back towards the castle. "I haven't got a death wish, you know?"

Flint remained silent for a long moment, and James almost didn't hear his quiet laughter as he quickly caught up. "You've got a smart reply for everything, don't you?"

"Naturally. After all, I am actually quite brilliant."

"Not as brilliant as you think you are."

"Right – tell that to the fifth year level spells I know." James grinned cheekily.

"I'd tell you to prove it, but that would sound like an invitation to hex me." Flint growled as they went up the steps to the castle. "Get yourself some gloves before next practice – might be a good idea to have Madame Pomfrey fix you up. You'll have trouble holding a quill and that lip looks painful."

James shrugged him off, heading into the Great Hall to get a quick bite before dinner ended. Flint snatched the back of his robe before he could sit down in his usual spot, instead dragging him further down the table to sit with the team.

"Told you before, Potter. You're part of the team. Start acting like it."

James scowled. "Don't manhandle me."

"Sit down. Eat – you need to put on a bit of muscle. High protein, high carbs to keep your energy up. I'd warn you away from the sugar, but you don't seem that keen on sweets anyways."

"How nice of you to pay such close attention to my eating habits," James made a face as Flint started piling food on his plate for him. "I'm not eating all that."

"You'll try."

"If you make me sick I will split your balls in two." James brandished his fork at Flint before stabbing at his pork chop. "And no – I don't know the spell for that. I'd do it the muggle way."

There wasn't much conversation after that.


"Ahh. Is Jamie mad at us?" Gred cooed, slapping James on the back and ruffling his hair. "Didn't you like our present?"

James rolled his eyes at the twin menaces, but couldn't quite keep the grin off his face. "The flowers were – cute. Kind of tame, compared to your usual though."

"Well, we like you." Forge shrugged, grinning unapologetically. "But the people we like aren't safe from our pranks, I'll have you know."

"Figured. Must be a riot living with you."

"Well, we can't complain." Forge grinned.

"But everyone else sure does." Gred sighed dramatically.

"Right. So we got this letter from our mum. . ."

"Oh do shut up!" James snapped. "I know, I know – it's 'be nice too poor, pathetic, misunderstood Harry Potter, right?"

"Something like that." Gred shrugged. "Snorted all over my breakfast when I read it, though."

"She seems to think you're a sweetheart."

"And we're like 'James? Sweetheart?'"

"Yeah, right."

"Someone needs to lay off the cheering charms."

James laughed. "Hey! You're saying I'm not sweet? Such slander!"

"Oh, sure. You're sweet. . ."

". . . about as sweet as a pickled toad."

"What's on our agenda tonight?"

"I figured we'll take your mum's advice tonight." James grinned. "Fancy blowing up a few toilets?"

The twins looked like Christmas had come early. "You're talking now!"

"We have to do it right so we don't get caught." James continued smoothly. "Time it so it happens when we're in class – make sure we have a solid alibi. I've got Potions first thing tomorrow. You?"

"Care of Magical Creatures."

"Excellent – that means I'll be right under Snape's nose and you lot will be out of the castle. Let's do this!"


The next morning, right in the middle of breakfast, the first toilet blew up – one from the bathrooms closest to the Great Hall. The second one was a few seconds later, the boom echoing down from the floors above. James arched an eyebrow at the ceiling, listening intently. Sure enough, another blast echoed a handful of heartbeats later.

Across the hall, the twins were also listening intently, fighting very hard not to bust up laughing. After the first three, the explosions continued periodically – there didn't seem to be a pattern. Half the teachers were gone by then, investigating the source of the noise.

A couple Ravenclaws came rushing in, tittering excitedly. "Someone's running around and blowing up toilets! The professors are chasing whoever's doing it, but they don't know which bathroom they're hitting next!"

So they'd messed up the offset somehow – the toilets weren't supposed to blow for another hour at least. It was still working marvelously. James smirked into his porridge, imagining Snape, Flitwick and McGonagall running after the sounds of exploding toilets, hoping to catch the culprit.

Too bad the culprits had finished up their work six hours earlier.

The cherry on top was a flustered and soggy Headmaster walking into the hall and announcing that morning classes were cancelled while the professors sorted out the mess. No one even batted an eyelash at James or his partners in crime.


Quidditch practice was three times a week, sometimes four if Flint thought one of the practices had been a flop – James was slowly but surely improving, able to keep up most of the time but nowhere where he really needed to be. It was a good thing he was only a reserve, because the first match against Gryffindor was coming up fast, and he didn't think he would cut it in a real game.

On top of quidditch, he was still barely managing to keep up with his homework, and the handful of nights he'd spent causing trouble with Fred and George left him exhausted. Then, there was the extra studying he did with Hermione – Occlumency was no joke. They both were struggling with the first step – the 'clear your mind' step. It wasn't as easy as it sounded.

Snape had dragged him off one evening after classes to see a specialist and start an eyesight correction – every morning he had to choke down a thick, goopy potion and he was dealing with headaches as his vision slowly corrected. He'd finally done away with his contacts all together, as the last bout of the three week treatment was on him and his prescriptive lenses were actually making his vision worse at that point.

James walked into the Great Hall on the morning of October 31, slightly thrown by the hundreds of pumpkins lining the tables and walls. He stared at the decorations for a long moment before an answer struck him.

"That's right – it's Halloween, isn't it?"

Not that it really mattered to him a whole lot. He'd never done anything special for Halloween – it was just an excuse for most people to act like bigger idiots than they usually were.

Classes that day were annoying – most of the other students were too excited about the feast that night to really pay attention, and the professors were being incredibly lenient with their distracted students. Had James known, he probably would have skived off his lessons for the day. As it was, every class was a complete waste of time.

At least quidditch practice was still productive – Flint refused to let up just because it was Halloween, pushing them harder than usual as everyone was determined to slaughter Gryffindor in the upcoming match. James was put in another Beater's match for the first half of practice, this time a three way battle against Derrick and Bole. Afterwards, the starting players ran through drills and some of the formations Flint had come up with, and James was relegated to watching.

He enjoyed watching this part of the practice – it was quite amazing what a well-practiced team could do. It was obvious they'd been playing together for a while, they knew each other's moves, were comfortable with each other – Flint trusted his team to make the right moves on the pitch.

It took him a while to realize what was causing the nasty churning in his gut as he watched the rest of the team practice. It was jealousy. He knew exactly what it felt like to work with people you knew inside and out, who had your back – he used to have that with Lou, Dan and Thomas.

He didn't think he'd ever get that back with them.

"Potter!"

James blinked at Flint – the team was on the ground, heading into the locker rooms and Flint was waiting impatiently for him to land. He did, slowly.

"You shouldn't space out like that in the air." Flint said, but his voice was neutral. "Wanted to talk to you about the game next week. You're not playing, obviously, but I expect you to be there."

"I will be. Need to get an idea of what it's really like out there anyways." James answered shortly.

Flint narrowed his eyes, but didn't comment and James was left standing alone on the pitch.

The feast was loud and obnoxious, and James didn't stick around long enough for the food to appear. Nearly as soon as he'd sat down with the rest of the team he'd gotten back up, not answering their questions as he slipped out of the Great Hall, completely ignoring the Headmaster as he stood to give a speech.

As he was going out, he caught sight of Hermione slowly making her way towards the Great Hall – her head was down, and she looked like she was marching to her death.

"What's wrong?" James demanded quietly, not reacting when the bushy-haired girl startled. "You're upset."

"It's just – one of the boys in my house – you know what? It's nothing. It's stupid."

"It's not stupid if it's bothering you this bad." James put in quietly. He glanced back over his shoulder towards the door to the Great Hall, the noise of the crowd was echoing, despite the closed doorway. "It's a mad house in there – I'm headed to the library."

Hermione nodded, looking relieved. "I'll join you."

"Excellent – but no Homework! It's Halloween! We're going to do something fun."

The library was completely deserted. Madame Pince wasn't even there. They commandeered two armchairs that were almost always taken by upper year students, and James laughingly ran off to find something exciting.

Within ten minutes they had a massive pile of books in front of them, mostly curse books that weren't quite dark enough to make the restricted section but that were guarded closely by the librarian all the same.

"So – how are you going to get back at him?" James asked coyly, looking up from the disgusting description of a curse that caused flatulence and diarrhea. It was an interesting idea, but he wouldn't want to be anywhere nearby when it took effect.

"Get back at who?"

"The boy from your house – the one that was being mean to you? Who was it, by the way? First year or older?"

"First year." Hermione shrugged. "I don't know if it's a good idea to get back at him."

"Of course it is – you can't let him get away with it or he'll never learn his lesson." James grinned. "Who was it – oh! Please tell me is was the stupid Weasley! Tell me it was moRon!"

"MoRon?" Hermione snickered. "That's clever."

"It was him, wasn't it? Otherwise you'd be telling me off!" James wiggled forward in his seat and pushed down the book she was trying to hide behind. "What did he do? Should we be finding a place to hide the body?"

"No!" Hermione squeaked. "It wasn't – I corrected him in class. And he – he said I was a complete nightmare and that it was no wonder I didn't have any friends."

"You're right – death isn't nearly painful enough."

"James!"

"I'm joking!" James leaned back in his chair. "Seriously though, you ought to put him in his place. It would totally serve him right to find out first hand that your smarts are more impressive than his dumbs any day of the week."

"I don't know." Hermione bit her lip, scrunching her nose before shaking her head. "I better not – don't need to make a target of myself."

"Hmm." James tapped his chin thoughtfully. "So we get someone else to take the fall for it, but make sure he knows exactly who fucked him over – but leave him with no proof so even if he tries to tell people it was you it will just make him look like a bigger idiot!"

"How would we go about doing that? And who would be our scapegoat?"

James smirked slowly. "His brothers, of course."

"What?"

"They'll go along with it, I bet." James cackled. "How 'bout you come with us next time we're doing a prank?"

"You prank with Fred and George!?"

"Of course. You don't really think I faked a kappa infestation by myself, do you?"

"I knew it!" Hermione huffed. "I knew you were behind that – wait! How did you get caught up with them?"

"They tried to get revenge when they were blamed for that prank I pulled on Flint." James shrugged. "I let them turn my hair purple and they decided I was 'alright for a Slytherin.'"

Hermione was staring at him intently. "This is the most terrifying news I've heard all year."

"I'm offended by that."

"Let me guess – you lot were behind the exploding toilets as well?"

"Of course." James shrugged. "It's just a little fun."

"A little fun with a big bill. Do you know how much it costs to replace 32 toilets and all the plumbing that was wrecked as well?"

"Nope. Not a clue."

"It cost a lot, James. A lot!"

James shrugged, completely unapologetic. "The bathrooms needed a bit of renovation anyways."

Hermione rolled her eyes. "You are completely shameless."

"Not true – I'm horribly, horribly ashamed that the professors managed to save the last 3 toilets that we rigged to blow."

Hermione laughed, shaking her head. Their banter was interrupted quite abruptly by a loud crash somewhere outside the library.

"What was that?" James pushed to his feet slowly, cocking his head to the side to listen. He heard something moving – it was a little ways away, but it sounded big. There was another crash and a loud, inhuman bellow.

"Think we should check it out?" Hermione asked quietly. "It sounds dangerous, whatever it is. We need to see what it is and warn the professors before the students start leaving the feast."

"Hm." James didn't really care, but he was curious. "Let's go see – it might just be Peeves playing a Halloween joke."

"Maybe." Hermione swallowed thickly as James drew his wand and led the way out of the library.

The corridors were deserted, but as soon as they were outside the library the sounds magnified – a lot. James crouched low against the wall, motioning for Hermione to follow and keep low as they crept down the hallway. The closer they got to the source of the noise, the more they noticed the awful stench – it smelled like an army of body builders that had spent all day working out in the sun without deodorant. It was nauseating.

"I don't like this – maybe we should just go." Hermione hissed. James just waved at her to quiet down and slipped to the edge of the corridor. He peeked around the corner, wrinkling his nose as the smell overwhelmed him. His eyes watered, and he had to press a hand tightly over his mouth to stifle the sound of his gagging.

"What is it?" Hermione asked quietly when James ducked back down beside her, out of sight of the massive, dumb looking creature that was lumbering slowly down the corridor in the opposite direction.

"Dunno – one of Boles relatives?" James joked weakly. Hermione elbowed him in the ribs, taking a deep breath and slipping past him to look around the corner.

"It's a troll." Hermione flung herself back from the line of sight of the thing. "It's a bloody mountain troll!"

"Shhh." James pressed a hand over her mouth. "Then we don't want it to notice us, do we?"

The hulking footsteps had stopped, and James chanced another glance around the corner – the troll had stopped, was wiggling its ears before it slowly turned around. It groaned something that might have passed as words of some sort and started ambling back up the corridor – directly towards where they were still crouched out of sight.

"We have to move." James grabbed Hermione's hand, flitting soundlessly from shadow to shadow. But even as quick as they were, the troll was much larger and had a bigger stride – James barely had time to drag Hermione into a shadowed alcove behind a suit of armor before the troll rounded the corner.

"Be very still and don't make a sound." James breathed, pressing them both tightly into the darkest corner. He pressed his eyes closed, picking up the familiar mantra in his head. 'You can't see us, you can't see us, you can't see us.'

He'd never know if it worked on the troll or not, however, because a door slammed open somewhere down the hallway and the troll bellowed loudly. James jumped, sneaking a peek from behind the suit of armor and cursing at the redhead that was standing in the middle of the corridor, right in front of the troll – moRon was staring stupidly up at the beast, his mouth open and his eyes wide.

He didn't even try to draw his wand – he just stayed frozen for a few seconds before a very girly scream ripped from his throat. The shriek was high and piercing, and the Troll most certainly didn't like it as he lunged towards the redhead with a roar. At least dumbass had enough sense to dodge the club that came crashing towards his head.

"We have to help him!" Hermione gasped.

"We do not! It's not our problem he's too stupid for his own good!" James hissed back. "I don't know how to deal with a troll!"

"But – he's going to get killed!"

"That's what we call natural selection, my dear! Survival of the fittest! Does that look fit to survive to you?"

"James!"

"What?" James scowled at her, trying to hold her back when she rushed out of their hiding place.

"Hey! Ugly!" Hermione screamed, shooting sparks at the twelve-foot monstrosity that was trying to grab moRon from where he was a quivering heap behind a statue. The troll grunted before turning and blinking at the girl. He started towards her when she shot another wave of sparks at him.

"Fuck it!" James rushed to Hermione's side. "You've got his attention – now what?"

"I haven't the foggiest!" Hermione squeaked, backing up with James.

"Stupify!" James screamed – the spell did absolutely nothing except to bounce of the troll's thick skin.

"Stunning won't work – troll hide is thick and magic resistant!"

"Yeah, thanks! I got that Hermione!" James yelled, cursing and dragging her farther back as the troll took a swing at them. He looked wildly around, assessing the narrow corridor and realizing they had missed the turn off back towards the library – they were backing into a dead end.

"You know the tripping jinx?" James demanded, eyes narrowed as he glanced to the statues on either side of them.

"Yes."

"When I say, trip the bastard up. Alright?"

Hermione nodded, her hand shaking as she leveled her wand at the advancing beast. James nodded, flicking his wand at the largest statue in the corridor – it was only a few feet away from them and they were just about out of room to retreat. This was going to be close. "Wingardium Leviosa!"

Slowly, the statue lifted into the air – James focused intently, raising it right up to the ceiling and letting it drift to the middle of the corridor. The troll was coming faster now.

"Do it!"

Hermione screamed out a tripping jinx and the troll came crashing forward. As soon as he was on the ground, James let the statue drop right onto its head.

Hermione screamed when the trolls head exploded from the force of the impact, showering them with blood and bits of skull. The rest of the troll twitched violently, thrashing as blood continued squirting out onto the floor from the ripped flesh at his neck. James sent another statue slamming down onto the beast, causing even more of a bloody mess. After several long moments the troll went still – just the occasional muscle spasm making its limbs twitch.

"I'm going to be sick." Hermione turned away from the sight, doubling over and retching loudly. James lowered his wand, wiping the blood off his face with his sleeve and walked forward to inspect the damage. Further down the corridor, moRon was inching closer – he was pale and shaking as he stared at the now headless troll.

"You two are bloody terrifying, do you know?"

James ignored him, toeing at one of the troll's massive legs. Absolutely nothing happened, and he turned back to Hermione. "You okay?"

Hermione nodded shakily, keeping her eyes glued to the ceiling. "I think so."

Pounding footsteps down the corridor caught their attention, and within seconds Snape, McGonagall, Flitwick and Quirrell came barreling down the hallway. They stopped dead at the sight of the troll, and Quirrell whimpered pathetically. James' eyes narrowed at the man's twitching features. Something was off there.

"What is the meaning of this!?" McGonagall demanded loudly. Her face was pale, but she walked past the slaughtered troll without batting an eye.

"We heard a noise." James said quietly. "Went to see what was making all the commotion and ran into this." He kicked at the troll again.

"You are supposed to be in your dormitories!" McGonagall snarled. "You should have gone straight there after leaving the feast!"

"We weren't at the feast!" James snapped back. "Me and Hermione were in the library."

"Why weren't you at the feast?" Flitwick asked curiously, even as the small man bent closer to the troll to examine the damage. "Very clever – tripping jinx and a levitation spell? Simple, yet effective – more effective than a lot of spells. Very clever – you know most magic wouldn't have worked on a troll."

"Hermione tripped it and I started dropping statues on it." James shrugged.

"And what about you, Mr. Weasley?" Snape asked coldly. "What were you doing here?"

MoRon shifted nervously. "When the announcement was made – I. . . er. . . I realized that Hermione never made it down to the feast, so she wouldn't know about the troll. I was trying to find her and warn her. Instead I ran smack dab into it. They – er. . . I'd be splattered all over the floor right now if they hadn't stepped in."

"I see." McGonagall turned to the cowering redhead. "It was very irresponsible to charge off on your own, Mr. Weasley. When you realized another student was in danger, you should have informed a professor or a prefect. You are lucky you weren't killed. Ten points from Gryffindor."

MoRon ducked his head, flushing as red as his hair.

"Off to the dorms with you – the students are finishing the feast in their common rooms."

McGonagall turned her attention back to James and Hermione – the girl was still trembling, and James nudged her playfully with his shoulder. "Bet he's really glad you're a bossy know-it-all now."

Hermione chuckled weakly. "Guess so."

"You two are very lucky." McGonagall started slowly. "And very clever. Are either of you hurt?"

James shook his head, and Hermione muttered a quiet "No, Ma'am."

"Very well. I think that will be twenty five points to both Slytherin and Gryffindor for such an impressive feat." McGonagall smiled. "Not many first years could take on a mountain troll and win."

"Thank you, Professor." James grinned.

"Go get cleaned up – then off to your dorms."

James nodded, taking Hermione's hand and leading her around the troll – he was aware of Quirrell's eyes on them as they quickly walked away from the bloody scene.

"You going to be alright?" James asked quietly as they made a quick stop by the library so he could snatch up his bag.

"Yes. I'll be alright – it was just intense." Hermione shook her head. "Better the troll than us, though."

James nodded in agreement. "So – moRon owes us now."

"How do you mean?"

"We saved his life. He owes us."

"Not everything is about gain, James. Sometimes you just have to do what's right."

"What's right?" James rolled his eyes. "Right and wrong are all a matter of perspective."

Hermione shook her head. "You didn't hesitate to jump at the troll when it was me."

"That's because I like you."

"But you would have let Ron get squashed?"

James frowned. "Yes. Hermione – there was absolutely no guarantee that I was any match for that troll. We won, yes. It was a fluke! I wasn't even sure the tripping jinx would work. I knew that it was dangerous, I knew we really didn't have a chance against the thing. You're asking whether I would knowingly put my life on the line for some bigoted dumbass that has no redeemable qualities that I can see, someone that's been rude to me, horrible to my friend? The answer is no. I would not."

Hermione listened intently, nodding her head at his answer. "I guess I can understand that."

"You're disappointed in me." James scowled. "You want honesty from me – well this is it. I've never been a hero, Hermione. I'm never going to be a hero. I'll fight to the death for someone I care about, but don't expect me to go rushing off to save every idiot who's too stupid to get out of the way of a bloody mountain troll!"

"I'm not – I'm not disappointed." Hermione shook her head. "Just – I don't understand, is all."

James was silent for a long time. "People aren't meant to understand each other. You'll never really understand another living person – not the way you understand yourself. We're different. I don't understand how you can throw yourself in front a troll to save a boy that has been nothing but awful to you."

Hermione hummed in agreement, and they finally went their separate ways.

Neither noticed a pair of narrowed, brown eyes watching their exchange from behind horn-rimmed glasses.

James had always had a twisted sense of humor when it came to shocking people – so he absolutely couldn't resist showing up still dripping blood while his entire house was packed into the Slytherin common room. The moment he stepped into the common room it fell deathly silent.

"What happened to you!?" Flint demanded loudly, eyes wide.

James just smirked, weaving through the grouped students and disappearing down the stairway towards the first year dorms and the bathroom where he could take a long, hot shower.

He doubted anyone would bother him after such a gruesome spectacle.