Chapter Twenty-Three (Or: Too Many Players on the Field)

The Headmaster was plotting to turn him into the perfect hero in a decade long plot, the end results of which were still a mystery. Meanwhile Snape was plotting with McGonagall to keep Dumbledores' stupid, crooked nose pointed in the wrong direction. Then, there was Barbie and Barbie's wife – James didn't know her name – they were playing games with the ministry and trying to find some loophole they could work to get Sirius Black his trial, all the while pretending it's because they were after Black's money but really because they wanted James as an ally – and of course that all tied in with Snape's master plan to keep Dumbledore out of the loop, which McGonagall was in on. Hermione was conspiring with Gred, Forge and Diggory – Diggory was using James to keep his parents happy and impress his housemates, and maybe even because he was amused by the whole situation.

And despite the fact that James could see all of this as clear as day, he didn't have an ounce of control in anything that was happening around him. That made him nervous.

The Hufflepuff common room was very yellow. A disgusting, bright cheerful yellow that matched the bubbly girl that was sitting across from him and chattering away like a parrot. Her name was Hannah, apparently, and she got on with everyone. Which was probably why it was so easy for her to sit there and talk to him while the rest of the house was staring at him like they still didn't know how to handle having a Slytherin in their midst. In fact, the only people in Hufflepuff that had talked to him since he'd been there were Diggory and the chatter box.

". . . and so I said, 'I don't think you're supposed to eat those.' But he didn't listen to me and went ahead and ate them anyway. .."

James was mostly ignoring her, though he pretended to listen a bit while he was writing the promised letter to Diggory's mother. Diggory was watching him, maybe to make sure James kept his end of the bargain but probably because he thought the situation was funny.

"Who ya writing to?" Hannah asked suddenly, scooting closer to peek at the letter he was writing. She smiled widely at him after she'd read it. "You're so sweet."

Diggory chuckled. "He is, isn't he?"

James ducked his head, scrunching his nose and muttering, "Not sweet. . ."

"Of course you are!" Hannah said excitedly. "We heard all about how you stood up for that Hermione girl! And you're so nice to Cedric's mum! And you saved Ronald, even though everyone knows he's not very nice. You're sweet!"

James felt his eyebrow twitch, but other than that didn't let his irritation show. "It's not like that."

"Ah. . . Is someone shy?" One of Diggory's friends laughed loudly. "C'mon Potter – you don't have to be ashamed because you're not as slimy as the rest of the snakes."

James snorted, rolling his eyes. They really had no idea. It was kind of sad, actually.

"Knock it off, Phillip." Diggory elbowed his friend. "We're supposed to be good hosts. You lot don't need to take the mickey out on him."

"I don't get why he's even here." Someone shouted from across the common room. "So what if he's not getting along with them – he's still a Slytherin!"

"Shut it, you!" Hannah glared across the room at the upper year girl. "It's because we're decent – he's boycotting the Slytherin Dorms until they change that awful password and we're supporting him for being brave enough to stand up to them!"

"So it's true then? They actually have that as a password? I thought that was just a rumor that they spread around just to mess with us. Why don't the teachers do something about it? It's offensive."

"The only one that could make them change it is Snape – and can you see him doing that just because Potter doesn't like it? Use your head – everyone knows he's just as twisted as the rest of them!"

James listened intently to the conversation taking place over his head, for once getting some actual insight about how his fellow students thought.

"But Dumbledore could make them change it!"

"He couldn't interfere in Slytherin like that without the Board of Governors pitching a fit. You know half of them are pure blood elitists and the other half are too scared of Malfoy to go against him."

Interesting. So, Barbie was on the Board of Governors? He hadn't known that. James shook his head, ducking back over his letter and carefully considering what he'd write next, thinking over what Diggory had said about his mother. He quickly covered his grin with a yawn, chuckling to himself as he started to write again.

The letter was a masterpiece, if he did say so himself. Not least because he was fairly certain he'd just roped Diggory into a tea party with his mother and her friends.

"What are you grinning about?" Hannah asked quietly, leaning in as if they shared a secret.

James snickered, eyes flicking around and seeing that Diggory was engrossed in the debate he showed the letter to the blonde girl. Her eyes widened as she read it before she giggled.

"That's cute."

"If you say so." James shrugged. "Don't think Cedric will think so. Don't ruin the surprise, okay?"

Hannah beamed like James had just declared that they were the best of friends. "My lips are sealed."

James grudgingly had to admit that he owed Hermione for this, because as annoyed as he was sitting in the Hufflepuff common room while they alternated between teasing him and talking about him as if he wasn't there, he was actually quite comfortable in the squishy arm-chair. He didn't feel threatened at all – no matter that most of the students around him didn't really like him, he knew they weren't going to attack him in his sleep.

And even though it wasn't a bed, there was a big, comfy couch with his name on it that he'd be crashing on that night, a roaring fire that kept the room plenty warm and absolutely no chance that any of the older Slytherins would hunt him down.

Even more grudgingly, he admitted that he would never have gotten there on his own. And wasn't that a bitch? Was he really off his game that much? Or was he just not keeping up when he needed to get better? It had all seemed so straight-forward a few weeks before.

He wouldn't let it get away from him again. He was focused, his lesson learned.

"So, Potter?"

"Yeah?" James glanced over to the older girl – he hadn't a clue what her name was but she had loads of curly hair that just wouldn't stay in her ponytail.

"How did you manage to end up in Slytherin, anyways? I mean – obviously you stick out like a sore thumb, you just don't belong there. What happened?"

James shrugged, blinking at her slowly. "I don't know – it's just where the hat put me. It said I'd do well in Slytherin. I didn't know it was gonna be such a big deal, though. I didn't know about any of the houses before I came here – my family are muggles. . ." James shrugged again, for added effect.

"Wait – so you're muggle raised?"

James nodded, scrunching his nose. "It's been really weird learning about the magical world – it's so different."

"Is that why you fell out of Cedric's fireplace!?" Someone called, with much more excitement than was necessary. "You'd never used the floo before, right!?"

James nodded in agreement, meeting Diggory's interested gaze. "And Snape didn't exactly explain it properly, either. Just sort of shoved some sparkly stuff into my hand and told me to say where I was going."

"Snape's an arse." Someone interjected. "Did you really get in a fight with him during your first potions lesson?"

"I heard you skipped out on detention with him too!"

"That's freakin' awesome – wish I had the balls to stand up to Snape. He scares the piss outta me!"

James chuckled as the topic of conversation switched over to how much everyone hated Snape.

Diggory moved to sit next to James, arching an eyebrow when James quickly stashed away the letter to Mrs. Diggory. "Are you really muggle raised?"

"One-hundred percent."

"Huh. I would never have guessed that."

"Why's that?"

"You don't act like you are." Diggory frowned. "Most people – if they aren't familiar with everything – they get this look about them. Like they're continually trying to catch up with everything."

"I'm adaptable." James said, leaning back in his chair and propping his arms behind his head.

"I can see that." Diggory glanced around at the lively conversation still going on that had switched from Snape to the upcoming Slytherin/Gryffindor quidditch match. "Two hours and you've become one of us. Impressive."

Diggory didn't explain any further, instead standing up and wishing everyone 'good night' before slipping off to bed. James watched him go, glancing around to try and figure out what the bloody hell the older boy had meant. He was surrounded by Hufflepuffs. Check. He was still a Slytherin. Check.

"So – what do you think Slytherin's chances are at winning the game?" Someone asked him, he couldn't keep track of who with the conversation sliding around so much.

James shrugged. "Pretty good, I think. We train like crazy – Flint's obsessive at practice."

"Man – I really want to see them take a fall this year. Er. . . no offense!"

James gave a half-smile, and contented himself to sit back and listen. That was it, then? He was one of them – at least they thought so or they'd never be spouting off so carelessly. Interesting. Apparently 'muggle-raised' just didn't add up to being a Slytherin. And if it didn't add up, then the only logical conclusion for them to come to was that he wasn't a real Slytherin.

Very interesting. Completely daft, but interesting all the same. But it was telling – they honestly believed that a person couldn't be both a decent person and a Slytherin. James wondered at that. Yeah, he knew his house-mates were prats – and he was obliged to include himself in that assessment. But for the rest of the school to truly believe that Slytherin equaled evil – well, some bad shit must have gone down in Slytherin. That was disturbing, to think that maybe the worst of what James had dealt with wasn't actually the worst the House of Snakes had to offer.

Yes, he really needed to get up to speed. And he needed to make sure he maintained good ties with the quidditch team. That meant he'd need to play nice with Flint. Damnit – the older boy was going to be smug as hell about it too.

Severus strode purposefully towards the Hufflepuff common room – it was nearing curfew and he knew James would be holed up there as he had the last three nights. Severus would have been content to let the boy stay there for a few weeks – after all, it was rather brilliant that he'd managed to get himself adopted by the Hufflepuffs. Albus had been giddy all week because of 'young Harry's wholesome new friends.'

However, James was still a Slytherin and he was needed.

Severus didn't bother knocking before sweeping into the Hufflepuff Common room – as a teacher he had the right to go wherever he pleased. The loud din of mindless chatter died so quickly he might have thought someone had cast a rather impressive silencing charm. He knew better, though. He just had that effect on people.

With a smirk, he glared around at the silent and gaping students until he spotted James sitting in the corner with the Abbott girl. How the boy could tolerate her unending tittering was beyond him.


"Yes, Professor?"

"I need to speak with you."

"Right." James quickly packed away his homework, grabbing his bag and weaving his way through the crowded common room.

"So – we'll see you later James!" Abbott called, rather bravely in the face of Severus' glare.

"I think not. Mr. Potter will be spending the night in his own dormitory." Snape drawled coldly, easily hiding his amusement at the indignant whispering that broke out around him. The infamous Hufflepuff loyalty at its best. It was well played on James' part.

"What's this about?" James demanded, and at least the brat had sense enough to wait until they had already left the common room. "I'm supposed to be keeping my head down and if you make me stay in there I will hurt someone."

Severus snorted. "That won't be an issue. Mr. Bole was taken to St. Mungos hospital an hour ago."

"What?" James gaped. "You're kidding – but – he'll be back before the game tomorrow, right?"

"No." Severus scowled. The situation was eerily bizarre. Absolutely nothing added up. "Mr. Bole was bitten by a Venomous Tentacula in Herbology this afternoon. The venom is extremely toxic, and he was bitten several times before Professor Sprout managed to intervene. It's highly unusual for the plant to be so aggressive, and Madame Pomfrey was barely able to get him stabilized enough to transfer him to a specialist."

"So it wasn't an accident, then." James responded quietly. They were only one hallway away from the Slytherin common room and the boy tugged on Severus' sleeve to pull him to a stop. "Dumbledore said something about this – about accidents happening like this – it was when I told him I probably wouldn't be playing any games this year because I'm a reserve."

Severus stared down at the boy, unimpressed. "It is highly unlikely that the Headmaster had anything to do with this. It wouldn't achieve anything."

"Except giving me a chance to prove myself." James pointed out.

And Severus was actually quite disturbed that he couldn't actually come up with an argument for that. "It would not be wise to jump to conclusions. Or to make accusations when we don't have any proof. Despite the unusual circumstances of Mr. Boles accident, there is no indication that it was anything but just that. An accident."

James scowled, but nodded. "And even if it wasn't, it's not like we could do anything about it."

"Indeed." Severus nodded, pointing down the hallway. "The new password is 'victory.' You can thank Mr. Flint for the change."

James blinked at him. "Right. And you're sure they won't attack me?"

"You're a starting player. Flint isn't going to let you out of his sight. Even if he did, there isn't anyone stupid enough to mess with you the night before a game." Severus explained, smirking. "Off you go. And be prepared for Flint to fuss."

James snorted at that. "Right. Because he's a regular mother hen."

Severus shook his head, but headed off towards his office to finish filling out the accident report he'd left undone.

"Bloody hell, Snape was right." James scoffed. "You are a mother hen."

"What!?" Flint snarled in defense. "I am not!"

James stood with his hands on his hips, glaring up at the older boy. They were toe to toe, facing off in the middle of the bathroom. The only other person in there was Pucey and the prefect looked like he was suffering from a hernia, he was laughing so hard. "I can shower on my own just fine, Flint. I don't need your help and I really don't want it."

"I'm not offering to wash your back for you or anything like that!" Flint yelled.

"No – just hovering over my shoulder to make sure I don't slip and crack my head open. I'm not two, Flint."

"Well." Flint huffed. "It's a possibility. Someone might make you fall and hit your head!"

James laughed. "You really think anyone's going to fuck with me? Tonight?"

"They might." Flint scowled. "They've been unreasonable to this point."

"As if they don't know you'd murder them if they did!"

"Fat lot of good that would do after the fact! Because even if I killed them, we'd be a player short tomorrow!"

James turned to Pucey, completely at a loss. "Is he for real? Is he serious – tell me this is some joke, or I'm being hazed or something!"

"He's serious." Pucey chortled. "He'll do everything in his power to make sure we're fit for tomorrow. He gets worse every time. He actually had a standoff with Miles at dinner – wouldn't let him leave the table until he'd eaten his vegetables. It's easier to just go along with it."

Flint was standing there with his arms crossed over his chest, an almost panicked look on his face and James knew he wasn't going to win, not exactly.

"Fine." James huffed, stomping towards one of the shower stalls. "But you stay outside the shower, and don't you dare touch that curtain. If you burst in on me, you're going to have a hard time sitting on a broom tomorrow. Got it!?"

"Alright." Flint held his hands up, but he was nervous and twitchy. "Fair enough."

James stared at him hard, shaking his head before slipping into the stall and pulling the curtain, making sure it was closed all the way. It didn't make him feel any better. After all, it was a very flimsy barrier.

James stashed his bag in the waterproof cubby, grumbling and stripping his robes off.

"Hey, Potter?"

James scowled at the curtain, but it didn't so much as twitch. "What?"

"Do you hurt at all?"


"All those scars – do any of them bother you? Because obviously a healer's never looked at them or you wouldn't still have so many. Are there any old injuries that impair you? Or mess with your range of motion?"

James blinked. "Wait – you mean I could get rid of them!?"

"Yeah." Flint sounded confused. "Of course you could. So do they? Hurt, I mean."

"I don't think so." James shrugged, though that was more for himself than Flint. He'd never actually thought about long term damage other than the sheer ugliness of the scars. "I don't think I'd realize if they did. It's not like I remember what it was like before, so it's not like I could compare what it's like to not have them."

"I'm going to take you to see Madame Pomfrey after you're done, so hurry up."

"Be realistic, Flint." Pucey's voice interjected. "What could a healer do in one night?"

"And wouldn't she stop me from playing if there really is a problem?" James added, slowly continuing to remove the rest of his clothes. He shivered from the cold, but turned on the water and waited for it to warm up, huddled as far away from the cold stream as he could in the narrow cubicle.

"You're right." Flint finally agreed, and James could barely hear him over the rushing water. "But after the game – you're going to get it checked out, Potter."

"Sure thing, Flint." James muttered. "Whatever you say."

"I'm holding you to that." Flint growled. "You need to be at your best."

James refrained from saying anything more, and there was no more conversation while he rushed through his shower, eager to get out of the awkwardness.

It was only a few minutes before he was drying off and pulling on a pair of warm flannel pajamas and a thick sweater. He made sure everything was packed away in his bag before stepping out. Flint was leaning against the wall to his right, and Pucey was gone.

"I cleared out the seventh years – the whole team is sleeping in there tonight." Flint explained. "Lights out in twenty minutes."

James nodded, following the older boy out of the bathroom and to the dorms closest to the common room. Pucey, Derrick, Bletchley, Higgs, and Warrington were already there, talking quietly about the Gryffindor line up. Flint motioned James to a bed that was against the farthest wall.

"Listen up!" Flint growled to the room. "Lights out in twenty – I don't want to hear it from anyone. We need our sleep. We're getting up at seven and heading down to breakfast at eight."

No one argued, and James had to wonder if the rest of the team just thought it was hopeless to try and go against Flint, or if they had that much respect for him as their captain. The older boy was certainly dedicated.

James didn't have anything left to do really, so went to crawl into bed. It was really warm. But before he could settle down Flint was suddenly pulling him back up.

"What do you think you're doing!?"

"What!?" James demanded. "What is your problem!"

"You can't go to bed with wet hair! Are you trying to get sick!"

James blinked at the older boy. "No, Flint. I'm not trying to get sick. So – is there a spell for that or am I supposed to stand here and wait for it to dry on its own?"

"There's a spell for it." Flint was scowling, and James rolled his eyes.

"Go for it, then."

That apparently surprised the older boy, but he was quick to dry James' hair anyways.

"Right. Is that all?" James asked, trying his hardest not to laugh.

"Put some socks on."

James nodded, fishing a pair of socks out of his bag and sitting on the edge of the bed to pull them on. "Is that all?"

Flint just scowled at him and James took that as a yes, sliding further up the bed and slipping under the covers. He laughed out loud when Flint made sure the covers were pulled up tight. "Tucking me in, Flint? You gonna read me a bed-time story too?"

James wasn't the only one laughing then, and Flint went beet red.

"Shut up!"

"Leave him alone guys." Pucey called. "He's just taking care of us. Hey, Marcus?"

"What!?" Flint growled, stomping over to his own bed – which was right next to James.

"You forgot the warm milk."

James laughed harder at that, but choked when Flint leapt to his feet and dashed out of the room. "Is he – is he really. . .?"

"Yeah." Warrington grunted. "Apparently it's soothing and helps us sleep."

"He's mental." James shook his head.

"Just go along with it." Pucey shrugged. "It helps calm his nerves, which is better for us all. This is worse than usual – but then, losing a player the day before a game – that's nerve-wracking on everyone."

"Right." James scrunched his nose. And if he vanished the milk instead of drinking it – well, Flint was none the wiser.

James felt he really ought to have been nervous, sitting in the locker room while the noise of the crowd got steadily louder. He was wearing a uniform that Snape had somehow managed to procure that morning, and though it was crisp and new, it fit perfectly and was light – easy to move in. James was lacing up his boots, making sure they were snug. Flint was pacing back and forth, but seemed calmer than he had the night before.

"Right. It's just about time."

James stood up, flexing his shoulders back and pulling on his gloves – the bat was heavy, but familiar and comfortable as he rested it over his shoulder.

"Potter – the Weasleys are really good at maneuvering – they like to drop in out of nowhere and hit the bludger out from under you. I think you've got them matched there, but keep an eye out. They're tricky.

James nodded, knowing as well as anyone how devious Gred and Forge were.

Nothing else was said as they marched out onto the field. The roar of the crowd hit them like a physical blow, and James could barely hear the cheers of their fellow Slytherins over the overwhelming screams of the other three houses. All of them were rooting for Gryffindor. Across the field, the Gryffindor team was marching forward – their bright red robes standing out against the green of the grass.

Flint was completely stoic by then, standing tall as he marched straight to the center of the pitch – the Gryffindor captain met him in the middle while the rest of the players stayed back, facing off in silence while Madame Hooch walked sedately out onto the field. Gred and Forge were scowling as they eyed the Slytherin team, but they saluted James when they noticed him standing there, wicked grins breaking out on their faces.

"Ahoy, Jamie-boy! Almost didn't notice you there!" Gred called.

"How cute – he's the runt of the litter!" Forge added, cackling.

James grinned, but didn't respond as the rest of the team was glaring at him.

Flint and the Gryffindor captain were shaking hands, and both teams mounted their brooms.

"Alright! I want a nice, clean game. All of you!" Hooch barked, talking more to the Slytherin team than the Gryffindors. James snorted, but shot up with the rest of his team when the whistle sounded.

"And welcome, Hogwarts, to the first game of the year – the highly anticipated Gryffindor versus Slytherin grudge match! It's bound to be a good show, and I hope everyone can stomach the sight of blood – just a joke, professor!"

James rolled his eyes at the commentary – he knew that Lee Jordan was friends with Gred and Forge, but hadn't actually met the boy outside of the Hogwarts Express. James paced himself carefully as Flint led them through their warm up laps. His biggest weakness was his endurance – he still wasn't at the same level as the rest of the team, and if he pushed too hard right off the bat he was going to wear himself out before the game was over.

"And on the Gryffindor team we have Wood, Bell, Johnson, Spinnet, Weasley, Weasley and Towler! A winning line up if I do say so myself!" Lee called, staying silent while three quarters of the stands erupted in deafening cheers. "And on the Slytherin side of things we have Flint, Pucey, Warrington, Bletchley, Higgs, Derrick and – this one's a surprise, folks – Potter! Seems Bole had a nasty encounter with a Venomous Tentacula yesterday and the Slytherin team had to sub in their reserve beater. It's been over twenty years since a first-year has been a starting player in a game at Hogwarts, and we're about to see why! I hope the little guy doesn't get splattered out there. Be gentle on him folks – it looks like a strong breeze might knock him off his broom."

James growled, though the sound of it was lost in the wind.

"Save it for the game, Potter. They won't be laughing for long." Flint barked, directing them to line up in formation while Hooch started the countdown. The snitch and bludgers were released first, the snitch zipping around in a tight circle before darting away and the bludgers roared upwards in a long arc.

The whistle sounded again, and the quaffle was in the air – it was immediately snatched up by one of the Gryffindor chasers and the game was on.

James shot off like a bullet, straight through the mass of players that hadn't quite scattered yet – he ducked and weaved through limbs and burst out of the other side in time to catch the bludger that was hurtling back into the fray – it smashed straight into the face of a very surprised Gryffindor girl, and she missed the quaffle that her teammate had tried to pass her.

"And ouch! Johnson takes a bludger to the face right off the bat and the quaffle passes to Flint! Good shot by Potter – might have written the little guy off too soon! Flint passes to Warrington – who hooks it and sends it straight back to Flint. Flint dodges a bludger hit by Fred – no George – maybe Fred – one of the Weasleys and it's to Pucey to take the shot! C'mon Wood! Block it!"

James had his sights on Gred – the redhead was closing in on a bludger, his bat at the ready and his eyes glued on Pucey. James shot up from beneath, getting there a fraction of a second before Gred made contact and tapped the bludger off course. Gred missed it by a hair, going off kilter and James took a swing that sent the heavy black ball hurtling towards the Gryffindor keeper – Wood, or whatever his name was.

Wood saw it coming, eyes widening and jerking to his left and out of the way, before scrambling back to cover the right when Pucey took the shot.

"And Slytherin scores! Bummer – another tricky hit by Potter distracts the Gryffindor keeper and Pucey gets the shot." There were 'boos' from the crowd, but the Slytherin section exploded, screaming out their approval and stomping their feet. "And it's Spinnet with the quaffle. . ."

There was sweat dripping down James' face, but he was grinning as he let Forge steal the bludger out from under him, dropping like a stone and racing to meet the bludger at the other end, sending it hurtling towards the same girl he'd hit before – Johnson. Her nose was already gushing blood, and she grunted at the force of the bludger hitting her in the back, but managed to pass the quaffle off to another chaser.

". . . and Johnson gets hit with another bludger – Potter's a vicious little shit – SORRY PROFESSOR I'LL WATCH MY MOUTH I PROMISE – oh look! Bell closes on the Slytherin goal, dodges a bludger from Derrick and passes back to Johnson, who misses and there's Spinnet with the catch and a bludger from Weasley almost hits the Slytherin keeper and Bletchley blocks Spinnets shot!"

More 'boos' and groans from the rest of the school, but the Slytherins were going crazy. Flint had the quaffle again, and James dropped in on his left to hit away a bludger.

"Good job!" Flint managed to yell, passing the quaffle off even as Johnson swooped in to steal it.

James was racing to intercept another bludger, Gred pushing to get there first when his broom jerked to a stop that almost sent him flying over the front of it. He twisted his wrist, trying to hold on one-handed and his bat went flying out of his hand. His heart was pounding in his throat as he righted himself, looking up in time to see the bludger he'd been intent on close in and smash into his chest with enough force to knock the air out of him. He shook it off, trying to start a dive to fetch his bat but the broom wouldn't move.

Marcus was shooting down the pitch – he was closing in on Wood, the others' attention completely focused on him when he dropped the quaffle. Warrington shot up from underneath, closing the distance and taking the shot – but Wood was on it and blocked it.

"What's this? It seems Potter dropped his bat – don't laugh at him folks, it could happen to anyone I'm sure." Marcus shot back around on Bell's tail, looking up in time to see Potter get nailed by a bludger and he growled. The boy was just sitting there in the air, doing nothing.

"And Potter seems frozen – maybe his nerves finally got the best of him or maybe the poor dear is just tuckered out! Johnson has the quaffle! Warrinton swoops in to intercept but gets a bludger to his face for his troubles – nice one Weasley! From Johnson to Spinnet, no Bell! And back to Spinnet and she shoots, she scores! And Potter is still just sitting there, and boy Flint doesn't look happy!"

"What the bloody hell are you doing!?" Marcus demanded, flying up to Potter. The smaller boy was gasping for breath, scowling.

"There's something wrong with my broom!" To emphasize his point, Potter tried his damnedest to go into a dive – Marcus could actually see his muscles straining from the effort. "It's not doing anything!"

"Right. I'll call a time out." Marcus was scowling – this had better not be some sort of sabotage. Hooch saw him signal, and the whistle blew. "Let's see what this is about."

Potter was sitting back on the broom, his arms crossed over his chest – some of his hair had escaped from his tie and was stuck to his forehead, and he wiped at it angrily. "This is fucked up!"

Marcus rolled his eyes, shaking his head at Adrian when he flew up to see what was going on. "Someone's messed with Potter's broom."

Jordan was still running his bloody mouth. "And Potter looks angry about something – is he throwing a tantrum down there? Aww. . . Is someone cranky because they didn't get their nap? Flint and Pucey don't look amused."

Almost everyone was laughing, and a muscle was working in Potter's jaw as Marcus tried to get close enough to take a look at the broom – not that he had any clue what he could do to fix it. He never got the chance, regardless, because before he could close the distance the broom lurched backwards. He saw it clear as day, Potter didn't direct it at all, barely had time to grab on with both hands before it shot off. It was moving on its own accord.

"Bloody hell!" Adrian shouted, and Marcus knew his friend had seen it too.

"Woah, there! And it looks like – we may have a case of foul play here, folks! Seems like Potter has lost control of his broom – c'mon, Gryffindors! We don't need sabotage to win! I'd make a joke about Potter not being able to handle his own broomstick but I think McGonagall would skin me alive. OUCH! Sorry, Professor!"

Marcus trailed after Potter, but couldn't get closer than a few meters away without the broom bucking violently and putting more distance between them – and more distance between Potter and the ground – he was getting steadily higher.

To his credit, Potter looked fairly calm despite the out of control broomstick that was starting to buck more rapidly, even when Marcus wasn't trying to close in.

"I don't know what to do here, Flint!" Potter yelled.

"Just – hold on!?" Marcus hated that it came out as a question because he didn't know what to do either.

"That's easy for you to say!" Potter yelled back, and even as he said it the broom pitched forward and snapped straight back up, catching Potter in the face. "FUCK!"

Jordan's commentary was still ongoing. "This looks serious – um. . . Professors? I think he's really in trouble up there!"

Marcus settled back on his own broom, his eyes glued to the first year that had just been jerked another ten feet up in a single, shuddering leap. The boy was easily a hundred feet over the ground and was gripping the broom so hard it looked physically painful as the broom started whipping back and forth. Adrian and Miles rose up beside him, and both Weasleys surprised him by popping up next to him as well.

"We've got to get him off that broom before he falls." Weasley shouted, as if it wasn't obvious.

"What's it to you!?" Miles demanded.

Marcus was already barking orders. "Pucey – get Derrick and shadow Potter from below – I want both of you in position to catch him if it comes to it! Miles – with me! We're going to circle above him and try to keep the blasted thing from going higher. Weasleys – flank him and see if we can't get him back on the ground in one piece!"

Everyone did what they were told, even the Gryffindor prats and Marcus would question that later when Potter wasn't in danger of getting splattered. He flew straight in the air, Miles keeping up with him as they tried to cut off Potter's ascent. If the broom reacted the same way it had been, it should head lower to get away from their interference.

"And it looks like they've got a strategy!" Jordan was still commentating, like it was still a bloody game and it was completely infuriating. Of course – no one cared that a Snake was on the line – if it was a bloody Lion up there. . .

It was working – sort of. Potter's broom didn't shoot any higher, but it wasn't getting lower, either. Instead, it was zigzagging between the Weasleys, twisting in a weird, lopsided circle.

"Hey Fred!" Weasley yelled – Marcus had to shoot to the left to keep the broom from rocketing up again. "Remember that practice where Oliver had us practicing passes because he thought it would make us better beaters?"

"What's your point, George?"

"Think we could pull off a double drop pass?"

Marcus snarled – or tried to. He didn't have the chance as he intercepted Potter again, this time actually colliding with the younger boy in mid-air. He shot out a hand to try and snatch him up but missed by inches as Potter plummeted down out of reach again.

"Right!" Weasley shouted again. "Hey James! Jump!"

"You're out of your fucking mind!" Potter screamed, and then yelped when the broom reared backwards like a horse and dropped back even farther so the broom was on top of him. Marcus could see the way Potter was shaking, knew the boy had to be losing his strength fast.

Maybe the Weasleys had a point, then.

"Do it Potter! On my mark!" Marcus yelled, and waited until one of the redheads had dropped farther down and the other was ready to make another pass. "Do it now!"

For one long second, Marcus didn't think Potter was going to let go and the broom was already starting to veer away.

"Fuck it!" Potter dropped, and Weasley was there, grabbing him by the arm and letting him swing for a minute before his brother swooped up and grabbed Potter around the waist, pulling the boy safely onto the front of his own broom.

Everyone was still after that, until Potter's broom stopped bucking and instead tumbled towards the ground.

"Well, that was something else, wasn't it folks!" Fucking Jordan. "I don't know about the rest of you, but I just about pissed myself!"

"Let's get to ground." Marcus growled, and no one argued. He kept a close eye on Weasley and Potter – Potter was pale, obviously shaken. And Weasley – Marcus didn't care about Weasley but he was making a face, like he had just realized something that scared the crap out of him.

"Um. . . Guys?" Any other time, Marcus would have laughed at the shaky voice, but his stomach had just dropped out from underneath him. Because Potter swore and tightened his grip on the broom again and Weasley was trying to get a better hold around Potter.

"I think my broom – GAH!"

The broom snapped backwards like a trebuchet and it was only a bloody miracle that Weasley managed to keep a hold on it with his legs, his knee hooked around the handle of the broom and holding onto Potter by the neck of his robes like a kitten.

For once, Jordan's fucking commentary matched Marcus' thoughts exactly. "Bloody hell! Oh Merlin! Oh Merlin! They're – bloody hell!"

"I've got him!" Weasley let go as Marcus dove in, getting an arm around Potter's waist and not stopping as he tried to get them to the ground – if Potter was the target, then his broom would be next and there wasn't any time to waste.

"Slow down, Flint!" Potter yelled, and Marcus realized he couldn't – they were diving steeper and faster and he couldn't slow the broom down and – they were going to crash. They were diving too fast for anyone to intercept and they were going to splatter.

"JUMP!" Potter screamed and hell if Marcus had a better idea because the broom was actually going faster than they'd fall on their own. He pushed off with all his might, tightening his hold on Potter and squeezing his eyes closed as the ground rushed at them.

The force of the impact didn't come like he was expecting – they crashed into cold water and Marcus screamed because it hurt. He tried to breath and water hit the back of his throat, choking him and his limbs wouldn't move. It was eerily silent, only his pounding heartbeat echoing in his ears – his eyes slid open and he could see Potter in front of him, limp and sinking – his head lolled and his hair was floating around his head but his eyes were closed and his mouth was hanging open and Marcus couldn't catch up, couldn't move.

Arms wrapped around him from behind, strong enough to drag him upwards and Marcus struggled to make his limbs work because Potter was still there, below him now and not moving and the edges of his vision were black and he couldn't breathe because the water was choking him and he could feel his pulse pounding in his ears.

His head broke the surface of the water and Marcus choked, gasping in a breath and getting another mouthful of water. He coughed and wretched, finally taking a breath and trying to get loose from the arm around his waist.

"Potter's still. . ." Marcus rasped, gulping down another breath.

"Katie's got him." The voice behind him was Wood's, and that didn't make any sense because why would Wood be pulling him out of the water? And why was there water in the first place? He didn't understand, but he did try to climb out of the water on his own – it gave way to muddy grass and he couldn't get a grip on it but then Johnson was there and hauled him up by the back of his uniform.

"Bloody hell, Flint. You're heavy."

Marcus didn't reply, heaving up some more water and trying to keep his face out of the mud. He rolled over onto his back, turning his head to watch Wood climb out of the water, his rival captain immediately leaning back down to pull Potter up as well.

Potter looked like a bloody rag doll, flopping lifelessly on the ground and Johnson was kneeling over him. "He's not breathing!"

The only thing Hermione could think was that Quidditch was awful – James was the smallest player out there and he was speeding through everyone else almost faster than her eyes could follow, missing getting plowed over by inches and – and what was the point!? She could hardly breathe with how scared she was that he was going to get splattered, and then he got slammed by one of the balls and she flinched along with him.

Then his broom went crazy – and no one was doing anything to help him! The kids around her were just 'oohing' like it was an exciting show!

"You're all demented!" Hermione screamed, leaping up and pushing her way through to the aisle. She didn't know what to do, but she had to get down to the field.

Her eyes were riveted overhead, and she tripped over someone's feet – she didn't bother to apologize, still staring on in horror as James let go of his broom – only to be caught by Fred and passed down to George. She took a shuddering breath as relief coursed through her, her eyes trailing the falling Nimbus 2000 and she was so glad it wasn't James falling like that.

"Bloody hell! Oh Merlin! Oh Merlin! They're – bloody hell!" Lee's voice echoed through the stadium and Hermione glanced up in time to see George dangling by one leg, letting James drop down to Flint – who shot off towards the ground. But they were out of control and then they were falling – the broom didn't stop, just went hurtling down like a javelin and lancing into the ground, even as James and Flint kept falling.

"JAMES!" Hermione screamed, her nails digging into her cheeks and then James and Flint were smacking into a pool of water that hadn't been there before, the 'SPLASH' echoing through the stadium that had gone deathly quiet. In the next instant she was running as fast as she could, sprinting down the steep, rickety steps behind the stands that would take her straight to the ground. She bowled over Snape when she hit the bottom, stumbling and then running out onto the field to where most the Gryffindor team was huddled around two people on the grass.

Hermione skidded to a halt as the rest of the players landed, gasping for breath and clutching the stitch in her side. She elbowed past the large Slytherin boy in her way and squeezed between Fred and Pucey to where James was laying on the ground.

"He's not breathing." Angelina yelled, and she was just looking around at everyone and not doing anything.

"MOVE!" Hermione screamed, and it took every ounce of strength she had to push Oliver out of the way so she could drop to her knees beside James – his chest wasn't moving, and she pressed her palms against his sternum, throwing all of her weight into the chest compressions.

"Damn it James! Wake up you bloody infuriating reckless twat!" Hermione ordered, slapping her friend across the face and going back to pumping on his chest. Someone gasped – because of her language maybe, or because she was being so vicious – she didn't care either way because she was going to make that bloody boy wake up and she was going to do it NOW! "Wake up! Breathe!"

And he did – well, he choked and spat out some water and Hermione was trying to roll him onto his side and finally someone was doing something to help – Angelina was helping her roll him over and he was retching and choking and gasping but he was breathing – short, shuddering breaths that sounded painful but were doing the job because he wasn't just lying there like a dead fish anymore, he was trying to push away the hands that were holding him.

"Get off. . ."

Hermione leaned back on her heels, pressing the palms of her hands to her eyes and laughing even as the tears started falling.

". . . Hermione. . .?"

She lowered her hands to look at him, trying to blink back the tears. "I thought you were dead! Don't you ever do that to me again!"

James blinked, frowning. "I'm fine, Hermione."

"Fine!? You are not fine! Fine is not almost drowning after falling a hundred feet! Someone just tried to kill you! That is NOT fine, James! It's not fine!" She crawled closer and pulled him into a hug, hiding her face in his hair and sobbing. "It's not fine – it's not okay."

"Hermione – you're choking me." James groaned, so Hermione pulled him closer so she could wrap her arms around his shoulders instead of his head.

Someone was laughing – what was wrong with these people!? Then she realized it was James laughing and she pinched him. "I hate you so much right now."

"Snape's got a broken nose." James muttered quietly, still laughing.

"What!?" Hermione sniffed, looking up and catching sight of the irate potions professor, his nose swollen and gushing blood and looking for all the world like he had smashed his face into a wall. Or like someone else had smashed his face into a wall. Oh. Right.

"Oops." Hermione whispered. "I didn't mean to do that."

James just laughed harder.