"Get me out of this. Oh, God, get me out of this."
"Mmmm, what was that?"
"I said, 'God, you have nice tits.'"
"Oh, glad you like them. Took long en-aaaaaahhh."
Despite this evidence of... satisfaction, James was finding it very difficult to lie back and think of Gryffindor. Instead, he thought longingly of anyone, anyone who could get him away from what felt something like the Giant Squid, with twice as many arms. Even Snape - no, not Snivellus. After all, Lara didn't want to kill him. Now, what was it Sita had said about this sort of thing? Ah, yes, 'somebody may as well enjoy this.'
"What was that, gorgeous?"
"You're going to enjoy this. I know I'm good, but you should still be able to hear." As Lara gave a beatific smile and began to demonstrate exactly how good she thought he was, the door to the old Charms classroom creaked open.
"Professor M.... POTTER! Of all the unspeakable.... Detention. Both of you. Separate. With McGonagall or whoever the HELL can stand the sight of your arrogant face! Now, kindly explain what you think you are playing at, before I decide to fetch Professor Morrison down here so you can tell him what you were doing in his classroom!"
Remarkably, Lily managed her entire diatribe without acknowledging Lara, except for a brief glare on the 'separate'. This was completely lost on the back of Lara's head. Mortified, James fell back on sarcasm and a sneer which would have had any Black [Sirius included] fuming in sheer jealousy.
"Well, Evans, it isn't really my place to explain - your parents ought to be doing that - but if you fancy a practical demonstration, be my guest. Tonight, behind the statue of Lakshmibai on the fifth floor. There's a reason they called her 'the Lascivious' and I'm sure you'd ... appreciate the modifications to her statue."
Evidently unable to think of a suitable reply, Lily turned a shade of crimson that clashed violently with her hair and stalked off in search of Morrison, the ancient, irascible and incomprehensible Charms professor. Just like Lily, James mused, to spend more time around a relic from eighteenth century Inverness than the brilliant, talented, funny and devastatingly handsome Quidditch Captain. Now, time to get rid of Lara gracefully. At least Lily had done something for him.
"Lara, it's been fun, but I have to go to my detention with the Slug. Now. Bye."
"Oh, anytime, sexy. So, behind Lakshmibai at, er, seven-thirty?" she replied with considerably more confidence than James had expected, if not with a huge amount of tact.
"Oh, right. Lakshmibai. I think not. Got to dash, see you 'round." Before Lara could try again, he slipped out of the classroom, behind a tapestry of Balrog the Blazing and down a spiral staircase in the direction of the dungeons. Slughorn might be a dozy old bastard, but he probably had it in him to remember who had detentions and when. Besides, the Slug wasn't going to keep asking him to join that ridiculous club forever and when he stopped he might decide he was tired of putting up with James' excuses as well. As all this ran through his mind, James passed through the teaching dungeons, strode past the Slytherin common room with an instinctive glance at the door for booby-traps and stopped outside the rather lurid lime-green door of Professor Slughorn's office.
Coolly, he raised the gold snake's-head doorknocker and knocked, once. It made only a very gentle thump, but the door opened a second later to reveal an unusually stern-looking Slughorn and a large, palatial office filled with photographs, keepsakes and expensive-looking equipment of all sorts.
"James, James, whatever are we going to do with you? Highly irregular enchantments in the Great Hall, more detentions than anyone in the school barring your friend Black; natural brilliance, but you are behind in four subjects and severely so in mine. I just don't see the problem." As usual, Slughorn sounded world-weary and slightly avuncular; it seemed to be his normal manner when dealing with anyone not in the Slug Club. James decided that indignation wouldn't help much - righteous fury never worked too well on Slytherins. All things considered, humility was probably the safest option.
"I honestly don't know what you mean about the Great Hall, sir; those phoenixes were impressive, but nothing to do with me. I am sorry about being so behind and I'll catch it up as soon as I can." This initially seemed to do the trick, but Slughorn's reply was in a much colder tone.
"Then explain to me, Potter, why you were looking at that ceiling a good ten seconds before anyone said anything. If I could prove you were lying to me you'd be in detention from now until Merlin wakes, but I can't. For now, take the rest of the afternoon to clean up the classroom I use for the exam classes and then strain the armadillo bile in my private stores. Without magic, and without any of your little friends visiting. If I hear one more complaint about you, you shall be given detentions for all three remaining Hogsmeade weekends. If I hear another after that, or if I do not receive your seven-weeks-overdue essay on the Polyjuice Potion by Monday afternoon's lesson, or most especially if I find a single item missing from those stores, I shall expel you from my NEWT class immediately. There will be no appeal, and your Head of House will support me." This hard, cold speech was very unusual for Slughorn. Something was probably up, but now was no time for plumbing the depths of a professor's mind, as far as James was concerned. Now, the only thing that mattered was surviving to fight another day.
"Yes, I understand, sir. May I take it you mean until dinner?"
"I suppose you may. Very well, until dinner, and do try not to come before me again. I should have preferred not to see you at all, but in Professor McGonagall's absence, I am responsible for discipline. I hope my work is over, I find putting the Fear of Slytherin into students very tiring. Pineapple?"
"No thanks, Professor. I'll, er, get on with it." Mystified, James made for the door.
"Certainly m'boy. Close the door as you go." Even more mystified, he left to begin his detention. Something was very wrong indeed.
As James opened the thirty-ninth bottle of armadillo bile - or was it the twenty-ninth? - the store-room door swung open to reveal an unexpected visitor. Instead of Slughorn himself, one of his pet students or even another teacher, Bellatrix Black walked into the store, turned to a shelf labelled 'Dionaea' and began to count off rows of bottles and boxes, careful not to touch anything. Completely oblivious to James, she muttered to herself and frequently consulted a long list in crabbed handwriting. Eventually, he decided it was better to alert her than to be painfully hexed when she realised he was there.
"Hi, Bella. All the cheerfulness in Slytherin getting you down?" Baiting the elder Slytherins was a risky business; they were prone to hexing first and asking questions of the remains. Bellatrix especially was a threat; her temper was feared by some of the teachers and there were persistent rumours that she had tortured a Ravenclaw second-year into unconsciousness, passing it off as the result of an unauthorised excursion into the Forbidden Forest.
"Not exactly, Potter. Some of us have useful things to do. Things more important than serving yet another detention. Not, of course, that an insufferable child like yourself could be expected to understand. Too young, too innocent, too wrapped up in your own little world." With a small smirk, Bella returned to her counting, finally lifting a small, clear bottle of something very thick. After holding it up to the torchlight, she nodded decisively and put it back on the shelf.
More annoyed at being called a child than at anything else, James watched as Bella strode out of the dungeon, still smirking. The bottle she had been examining turned out, on closer examination, to contain 'Sap of Dionaea Sarcophagi, specimen from Malaysia. Digest. solv.' Where was Remus when you needed a walking encyclopaedia? Or Quaine - she might look like the back end of the Knight Bus but she knew her Creatures even better than Remus. James' reflections were interrupted sharply by the armadillo bile, which had overflowed the flask he was straining it into and was now dripping onto his shoes. Swearing loudly, he wrenched his attention back to the task at hand.
As he decanted the last of the bile, James gave a deep sigh at the prospect of that damned Potions essay. Why should he care about dangers inherent in the production and use of the Polyjuice Potion? After all, it wasn't exactly something you used every day. Mentally composing scathing retorts to Slughorn's next lecture on the importance of Potions theory and proper safety precautions, James opened up one of his ancient reference tomes and got down to business. After half an hour of diligent study, his mind began to wander once more. No, the Marauders lacked the talent and resources to brew this stuff covertly and count on it working, especially when failure was simply not an option, but what if it could be done in public? A dire warning on the impossibility of animal transformations, and an impressive woodcut of the consequences, caught his eye. Anything this dangerous had to be usable somehow. Time, maybe, to call in a few debts. His mind made up, James returned his attention to the essay. Work was different when there was a practical use for it, especially one involving mayhem, mischief and sticking it to deserving Slytherins.
An hour later, James strolled into the library, the dense scroll of his essay under one arm and a pile of books in the other. Passing Madam Pince at the entrance - library cards were for lesser mortals - he set off for the dusty shelves towards the back where the advanced Potions texts were shelved. As he walked, he caught sight of Lily Evans' unmistakable ginger hair, bent over a textbook with someone he didn't recognise; probably another lost lamb desperate for Potions or Charms help. Deciding that it was a bad time, he resolved to walk right past, until some chance syllable from her study partner triggered alarm bells deep within him. By the time his brain had consciously processed 'Snape is sitting at that table', his wand was out and pointed and the Potions texts safely out of sight. It didn't do to let the enemy see one reading up on his favourite subject, after all. With his ever-uncertain suave thoroughly shaken by the sight of his worst enemy sitting happily by - well, there were no words for Lily - he simply blurted out the first thing that came to mind:
"Snivellus, what the hell are you doing there? How dare you be anywhere near Evans? Get out now, before you end up showing the bookworms your underwear." Fortunately, James retained sufficient control that this came out quietly in a low, hard snarl. Surprisingly, Lily was first to reply, in tones which made James sound calm and restrained.
"And how dare you, Potter, tell me who I may and may not spend my time with? Especially after your ... escapades earlier. You've annoyed me twice in six hours being your normal idiot self. I'm getting tired of this rubbish, now go away. I'm sure Notsil can't wait to see you again, assuming she remembers your name. While you're at it, leave Severus alone. Weren't you the brave Gryffindors last week, four against one and attacking from ambush?" It was difficult to tell whether James or Snape was more incensed. James turned a deep mauve, Snape merely slipped into his most disdainful Slytherin drawl.
"And since when were you under the impression, Evans, that I need you to defend me against the great Potter and his cohorts? I can cope quite well without you poking your little nose in. Potter, I am trying to work. I realise that is a foreign concept to you, but this is important."
James was already beginning a murderous retort when he saw something shift under Snape's robes. Once more, the honed instincts of a Quidditch player, Marauder and veteran corridor duellist took over. Already throwing himself out of the way of a spell not yet cast, he snapped, "Telasunguis - have to be quicker than that Snivellus." Somehow, Snape and his toenails survived intact, for Lily had been even quicker than James to cast her Shield Charm even as James began the familiar routine of taunts and hexes. Mindful of the ever-watchful librarian and Prefects, all three paused and growled variants on 'this isn't over'. Possibly outnumbered and certainly outgunned, James ducked behind a convenient bookcase. After briefly considering plans of attack, he sauntered off, doing his best to look cool and collected even as he retreated from a girl and a Slytherin.
In the shadows of the Restricted Section, a pair of grinning students watched James go by looking so determinedly carefree he jumped two feet in the air at the sound of a clumsy Hufflepuff dropping a pile of textbooks.
"Oh, this is too good to miss," whispered one. "Tarantallegra." The other, more feminine voice was less sanguine and gave a war-whoop of pure delight.
"NICE ONE, BLACK!"
Under cover of Madam Pince's indignation, James tap-danced his way out of the library whilst everyone stared at a formerly-secret passageway. His fragile calm was almost completely shattered and the thought that even Sirius had turned against him was burning acid holes in his stomach.
For once, there was no theatre to James' entrance into the Common Room. It wasn't necessary. Normally, he didn't look like a warrior mage straight out of legend, complete with flashing eyes, swirling robes and an aura of crackling tension. The usual gaggle of third-year girls were torn between ardent admiration and abject terror, mostly compromising by looking away and whispering as quietly as they could. James didn't give them a second glance, instead making straight for the fire where Peter Pettigrew was comfortably ensconced in his chair.
"Wormtail. Move. I need a plan." He shifted. Fast.
"Er, right, Prongs. Who is it this time? That should be fun; it's been ages since we had anything good. Padfoot will be pleased; he was saying this morning that you must be going soft."
"Sirius is part of the problem. As are Evans, Snivellus, Nostril, the Slug and the Knobless and Most Anxious House of Black. Remember the prank war from our fourth year?" Peter did remember that year all too well. Even the Marauders couldn't take on all of Slytherin House, the rest of their year and half the Professors. He nodded cautiously. "Well, this time it's serious."
"James, whatever you say, but I'm not sure that's a good idea. I'm not saying we don't do it, just..."
"Bloody hell. Aren't you with me either? Any idea where Moony and Sirius actually are?" Another voice came in from behind.
"Not sure why you want to know, but Liv's at Charms Club. Sirius has ... gone missing." The cultured tones of Ben Avery were not what James had expected, and what did Olivia have to do with it?
"Do I care where Olivia is? And what do you mean 'missing'?"
"Oh, you know. Miss Finch, Miss Vane, Miss Stanger... I say, I didn't know there was another Moon in the school. I thought Olivia was an only child."
"Never mind that. Sirius is off being charming, is he? Which girls have I particularly upset this week, that they'd talk Sirius into hexing me for their amusement?" Peter unwisely chose this moment to rejoin the conversation.
"I don't know James - surely Sirius wouldn't help anyone hurt you."
"You don't know much, do you? I'm off to get some dinner. Bye." James hopped out of his chair, shot a brief death-glare at the girls' dorm steps up which Lily was disappearing and left in a swirl of robes, which would have delighted his mentor and left Snape green with envy.
Arriving in the Great Hall did nothing to improve James' spirits. Why did the house-elves have to make shepherds' pie? He hated shepherd's pie almost as much as he hated Dark Arts, Slytherins and competition, all of which, in the form of Snivellus Snape, were glaring at him from a near-deserted Slytherin table.
He was just finishing the revolting gloop when a familiar cutting voice tore him away from contemplating its remains.
"What's up, Potter? Your little friends sick of your antics? Can't stand seeing your precious Mudblood with me?" By some miracle James did not move. When he spoke, his voice came out level and cold in the archaic form of a formal Challenge.
"Par Guinette, par Ellainville et par d'Alençon, je vous défi. Mon gant à vous, et la magie à la vainqueur. Your second? Mine is Sirius Black. He will pass the terms to whomever you choose. Good night." Although James had daydreamt from time to time, he had never been sufficiently roused to issue a Challenge in anger. Indeed, he was barely old enough to do so and the prospect of his family's displeasure at a teenage boy risking their honour over a school dispute was enough to control almost any recklessness.
Too late now, the gauntlet was down and surrender unthinkable. With the first flash of rage past, the probable consequences of his actions almost overwhelmed him. Would Sirius even stand with him? Would the family back him if word got out? Had Snape even heard of a Challenge before, and did he know how to conduct a duel of honour? More to the point, what the hell would Dumbledore say? The Headmaster was a known opponent of duelling and a vocal supporter of the Ministry ban on duels outside the competition ring. Oh shit. Even if nobody was hurt, he could go to Azkaban for this.
In a daze, he left the Great Hall and went back to his dorm, which was still empty. Evidently, Sirius was still 'missing', Peter working, Remus in the Hospital Wing - the full moon was only a day away, and he had been unusually weak lately. As something small and hard bounced off his arm, James glanced around the room. Even for a boys' dorm it was unusually messy. As if someone had been throwing heavy objects around, which wasn't too far from the truth. A loud raspberry reverberated from the high ceiling.
"PEEVES! Get out! NOW!"
"Oooh, Potty's all upset. Is he angry about his friend's relatives, or the little girl he likes so much, or his precious Sarah out flying round the room?" Sarah was the name James had given to his Snitch, which he enjoyed playing with when bored in lessons. Today it had stayed locked in his trunk, as it was as difficult to catch when properly released as any other Snitch. Evidently, it was no longer there - it was bouncing off the walls and destroying his room. As he made to dive on it, it shot out of the broken window into the evening air. Unable to muster the energy to chase it down or start clearing up, James sank down on his bed in deep despair. No Marauders to cheer things up, Quidditch disaster, Lily attacking him at every turn, Lara, Slughorn being stern, Bellatrix up to something and, by Merlin's beard, a real, straight-out-of-bad-novels duel with Snape. As he sat in the twilight, it seemed that for all James Potter's advantages, for all his talent and reputation, things really couldn't get worse. This was the nadir, the bottom of the heap, the absolute pits.