Beautiful image by Ande @ TDA
Give or Take - Steph Hill
I have no trouble with my enemies. But my goddam friends...
they are the ones that keep me walking the floor nights.
- Oscar Levant
James leaned against the wall outside the Headmaster’s office. Professor Longbottom had told him to wait, that he would not be long, but that there were some things he need to go over with McGonagall before she left.
James wasn’t sure whether to be grateful for the chance to prepare himself and his story or curse the chance to worry. He crossed his arms over his chest and closed his eyes, looking for all the world like a secure young man totally unconcerned with the judgement about to be handed down to him.
Inside, however, he was calling himself twelve types of idiot and trying desperately to figure out exactly just what was wrong with him. After seven years of friendship, he should know better than to follow Anastacia into anything.
And yet that’s what he did, time after time. All she had to do was look at something askance and he was there, following her every move, watching for the moment when she set whatever plan she was cooking up (and there was always something) into action.
Perhaps it was because the alternative was allowing her to go off and settle her scores on her own; something that James could not see himself ever doing. Not now, not ever.
Not that anything would have happened to her if she had. His best friend seemed to possess an uncanny ability to get herself out of trouble. For as long as he’d been putting his foot in things, she’d been gracefully walking through life’s problems, not even getting her toes wet. James still couldn’t figure out how she did it.
Honestly, sometimes it seemed like she’d been born with Felix Felicis running through her veins instead of blood. It would explain a lot. Like how teachers never seemed to notice that every time he got in trouble, she was there too.
James bit back a self-deprecating smile as his thoughts turned to their first scrape together, when her bizarre survival instinct had first presented itself.
He hadn’t known Anastacia very well, hadn’t known her at all, really, apart from seeing her at the Gryffindor table and in class. She was such a quiet little thing, barely talking at all, sitting silently in the back corner no matter what lesson they had. No one really seemed to understand her, least of all James, who was far too busy trying to have as much fun and break as many rules as fast as he could to pay any attention to someone who so obviously wanted to be invisible.
It came as a complete and utter shock, then, when half-way through the year, James woke up in the middle of the night to someone poking him sharply in the side. He tried to yell, or to talk, or anything, but his voice wouldn’t work. Anastacia was kneeling by his bed, the tip of her wand glowing faintly, just illuminating her face.
‘I’ve put a silencing charm on you,’ she told him matter-of-factly, ‘so there’s no use trying to talk. Come down to the common room with me and I’ll take it off, ok? But only if you don’t make any noise.’
James had been stunned by her presence, and by the charm, which was much too advanced for a first year to have mastered. But he’d nodded anyway and followed her down the stairs to the empty common room.
‘What in Merlin’s name is going on?’ he’d hissed furiously as soon as she’d removed the enchantment.
Anastacia had perched on the arm of one of the sofas and looked at him speculatively.
‘I need your help,’ she told him, without any preamble whatsoever, ‘I need to get to the kitchens, now, and you’re apparently the best at sneaking around without getting caught.’
He’d preened just a little at that last. Of course, a lot of it was due to his dad’s cloak and his grandfather’s map, but what people didn’t know wouldn’t hurt them.
‘So are you going to help me or not?’ she’d demanded imperiously. Even back then, when she was a tiny little thing that barely spoke to anyone, she’d always managed to make him do whatever she wanted him to.
So he’d fetched his sneaking aids, after swearing her to secrecy, and led the way out of the portrait hole, whose frame he gave a weekly clean in return for her turning a blind eye to his nocturnal wanderings. It wasn’t until they were halfway there that James actually thought to ask why she needed to get to the kitchens so desperately.
‘None of your business,’ was her initial inspired response, but after James threatened to take the cloak and leave, she had little choice but to tell him what was really going on.
‘Someone said something horrid to Ally and she didn’t come down for tea. She’s been crying in the dormitory all night, and being hungry isn’t making it any better.’
James had been slightly taken aback. He’d thought she was just running down to get some sweets for a midnight feast or something. Merlin, that was all he ever did! But she was actually trying to help someone. James felt the beginnings of something like respect starting to form within him.
They’d made it to the kitchens without any major mishaps, apart from having to stand very still for a moment or two as Peeves passed by. Luckily, he was focusing so hard on some prank or another that he didn’t notice their presence.
Once in the kitchens, the house elves, some of whom remembered his father and even his grandfather were only too happy to oblige their request for food. Once they had gathered as much as they could carry safely, they thanked the elves and left the way they’d come.
However, what had been a fairly simple walk was now made much more difficult due to the amount of food they were carrying. It also made their progress much slower, meaning that they couldn’t avoid stumbling across some prefects patrolling the corridors.
If they had stayed still, they would have been fine, but, unfortunately for them, they both lost their heads the moment the other students came into view.
As they tried to run back down the corridor, James’s foot caught in a gap between the stones of the floor. He fell flat on his face, food spilling out of his arms and tumbling across the floor. The prefects were on him instantly.
‘Potter! What are you doing out of bed?’
Of course, it was just his luck that he was caught by Terry Higgins and Mandy Clark. Not a week had passed since he’d hidden a whole bunch of dungbombs above the door to Ravenclaw Tower. To be fair, it wasn’t like he’d been aiming for them or anything. They just happened to be the first ones to come out, and therefore received the worst of the blow. They hadn’t been able to prove it was him, but they’d known nonetheless. There was no one else it could have been.
James looked up for Anastacia, but she seemed to have kept the cloak around her. He couldn’t see her anywhere. The prefects hauled him to his feet, manhandling him just a little, but he barely noticed. For some reason the idea of the tiny little blonde girl now wandering the corridors all alone sent a little wave of fear through the pit of his stomach.
James was dragged up to Professor McGonagall’s office and given a sound telling off, the exact words of which he mouthed along under his breath, having heard them enough in the past year to have them memorised. The prefects then marched him to Gryffindor Tower and handed him over to the stunned and ever-so-slightly impressed Gryffindor prefects. Said prefects then gave James a quick once-over and pumped him for details, which, for once, he declined to share. After this, he was ordered straight to bed, orders which he obeyed with some reluctance.
He wondered where Anastacia was and if she’d make it back okay all the time it took him to get up the stairs and back into his dorm. Mostly, he worried that she’d be caught too, or run into Peeves, or something of that nature, and he wouldn’t be there to help. It didn’t really occur to him that he was worrying an inordinate amount about a girl, and one he’d only just met too. She’d seemed so small, so…fragile. So unable to look after herself.
He needn’t have worried. When he entered the first year boy’s dorm, she was sitting on the edge of his bed, swinging her legs absently.
‘There you are!’ she’d greeted him in a softly exasperated voice, ‘I’ve been waiting ages!’
‘Sorry,’ James had replied, slightly stung by her tone, ‘I had to get past the prefects.’
He’d joined her on the bed and she’d silently handed him back the invisibility cloak. She still had the food; it was on the bed beside her and didn’t look at all the worse for wear after a run in the corridors.
‘How did you get back in?’ he’d asked curiously.
‘I sneaked through the portrait hole with you. The prefects were staring so long that it was really quite easy.’
James had nodded, this logic making perfect sense to him. He was a little surprised she’d managed to take the opportunity, though, and he’d said so.
‘Please,’ she’d scoffed indignantly, ‘people here hardly look around at all. There’s almost no point to sneaking about.’
Once again, James had felt slightly hurt at her attitude.
‘I’m so sorry that Hogwart’s nightlife doesn’t meet your expectations.’
She’d been looking at the wall opposite or her swinging feet up until now. When he spoke, she turned to face him, her eyes just a little shocked.
‘Don’t say that!’ she’d whispered fiercely, her face suddenly lighting up from within.
‘It wasn’t like my expectations; it was more! It was…’
She searched for the right word, her forehead puckering as she thought. Then, suddenly, her face broke into a beatific smile.
‘It was wonderful.’
For the first time since he’d seen her, her eyes weren’t dead looking. They were alive and glowing and vibrant. She looked like she was ready to take on the world, to do anything she wanted to.
She looked happy. And it was all because of him.
It was the turning point in both their lives.
‘You can come in now, James.’
James sighed, pulled out of his reverie by Professor Longbottom’s raised voice. Straightening his clothes – always best to make a good first impression – he opened the door to the Headmaster’s office and walked through.
The first thing he always noticed upon entering this room was the portrait of Dumbledore high on the wall directly behind the Headmaster’s desk. As usual, the old headmaster was looking down on him with a smile, his eyes twinkling behind his glasses. James bowed deeply and elaborately and received a genial nod in return. He walked forward to stand in front of the desk.
Professor McGonagall was seated to one side of Professor Longbottom’s desk. Her hands were folded in her lap and she peered at him sternly over her spectacles.
‘James, I trust you know why you’re here?’
James turned his attention to Professor Longbottom. Poor man. James really did feel sorry for him. After all, it wasn’t his fault that James was the son of one of his closest friends, nor was it his fault that James seemed to have inherited all of said friends’ penchant for mischief. Seemed being the operative word.
If only he knew, thought James wryly.
‘I’m having a hard time understanding exactly why you went out on a limb tonight, so to speak;’ the professor continued, his voice light, ‘perhaps you could enlighten me?’
‘Well, you see, Professor, Sylvia Blackthorn’s been picking on this little second year Ravenclaw girl, Megan Dalrymple? Anyway,’ he continued in a rush, ‘yesterday, she stole a necklace that belonged to Megan’s mother. Megan was really upset. And then Sylvia wore it around the entrance hall and forced Megan to say that she’d given it to her, when it was pretty clear that she hadn’t.’
‘What I don’t understand,’ McGonagall interjected, ‘is why you or Miss Dalrymple didn’t go straight to one of the teachers, or to the head girl…or the head boy.’ she added, almost as an afterthought.
Which was precisely what Megan had done; she’d gone straight to Anastacia the moment the necklace had gone missing. Anastacia, in her usual way, had gone to gently but firmly tell Sylvia off. The problems had started when Sylvia, a blonde fifth year with an over-inflated sense of her own worth, had laughed in Anastacia’s face and told her to sod off.
In as many words.
So, of course, a silently fuming Anastacia had wasted no time in planning how to convince Sylvia of the seriousness of her actions in another way, one that would prove more effective. Which meant that James had no choice but to be involved.
When she’d first told him her plan, he’d laughed til he cried, thinking that she was joking. Then, when he’d figured out she was serious, he’d just gaped at her. She really seemed to have no sense of the impossible. Not, that wasn’t true – it was more that what other people regarded as impossible, she saw merely as…improbable.
The Headmaster sighed.
‘In light of this information, coupled with the fright I’m sure you received today, I’ve decided not to expel you.’
James grinned broadly at the gently teasing tone of voice.
‘However, this does not mean that you don’t have to take responsibility for your actions. You will therefore write a formal apology to Miss Blackthorn and you will assist Mr Filch in cleaning the trophy room tomorrow night.’
Professor Longbottom looked at McGonagall as he spoke. She gave the tiniest nod of her head, and James saw the tension leave the Headmaster’s wiry frame. He held back the urge to laugh and regarded his family friend with sympathy. Poor Neville; some things you never got over, and being scared of McGonagall was definitely one of them.
He was dismissed; he bobbed his head quickly, gave Dumbledore a wave and got a wink in return, and strode from the office.
Once outside, his grin stretched even wider. Only one night of detention! And with Filch! He’d never got off so easy in his life!
Whistling happily, James strode off in the direction of Gryffindor Tower.
‘Harpsichord.’ He whispered to the Fat Lady, who giggled and winked at him as the portrait swung forwards. James climbed through the hole and was immediately assaulted by the buffer of sound that enclosed the common room.
‘Maaate!’ a loud voice cried. James grinned and reached out to hi-five his best male friend, Sam Jordan. Sam’s black dreads swung crazily around his head as he plopped his body down in a chair in front of the fireplace.
‘Inspired,’ Sam said, shaking his head in disbelief, ‘abso-bloody-lutely inspired. Who else would have thought of it besides you? How the hell did you get all the pants, though?’
James gave what he hoped was a mysterious smile.
‘Got my ways, mate, got my ways.’
‘So what’s your punishment, then?’
The smile disappeared. Groaning, James turned to face his cousin, who had her arms crossed over her chest and was glaring at him, one eyebrow raised imperiously.
‘Seriously, Rose, give it a rest with the parental thing, would you? You’re not my mum.’
She seemed to glare harder, if that were even possible.
‘What you did today was not only stupid and insensitive and dangerous; it was also a really bad example to the rest of the school. Particularly the young ones.’
‘Oh, lighten up, Rose.’
A small red head wriggled its way under James’ arm and two hazel eyes beamed up at him.
‘Sylvia Blackthorn’s a stupid prat. She deserved it. In fact, she deserved more.’
‘What? You don’t actually think he was in the right, do you?’
Lily rolled her eyes at her cousin.
‘Stop being so dramatic; no one’s impressed by your paddies any more. He was a git, but what else is new.’
‘Thanks, Lils.’ James remarked drily.
‘Well, you are. Anyhow, Megan was really upset when Sylvia took her necklace. Her mum died when she was little, you know, and it’s one of the only things of hers she’s got left. She returned it, too,’ Lily continued, turning to face her brother again.
‘Yeah, while you were with Neville. She gave it back to Megan and legged it back to her dorm. It was hilarious.’
She chuckled wickedly. James hugged her around the shoulders and joined in with the laughter. At least some good had come of tonight’s debacle.
‘Sorry to break up the triumphant gathering folks, but we have school tomorrow and some people need their sleep.’
There were a few groans and dark glances, but no one really moved or payed any attention to the quiet words, apart from a few first years who started to wearily make their way towards the stairs. Nothing else happened for a few minutes and the noise level rose again as everyone resumed their conversations.
James heard someone take a deep breath behind him and he grinned again. Leisurely, he leant back against a conveniently placed table and prepared to watch the fun unfold.
‘If everyone in this room under the age of fourteen is not at least heading towards those stairs by the time I count to three, there will be hell to pay.’
This time, the speaker had raised their voice a few notches, which brought about even more groans from the crowd.
The remaining first years grabbed their things and hurried for the stairs, followed by a good number of second years, sharing resigned looks as they went.
Now all of the second years were moving, joined by the third years, who tried to look nonchalant as they sauntered across the room, but only succeeded in looking slightly frightened.
Before the rest of the word could be formed, the fourth years and any remaining stragglers bolted for the stairs, leaving the fifth, sixth and seventh year Gryffindors behind in the common room, laughing their heads off.
James joined in, turning around to meet Anastacia’s gaze.
‘Works every time,’ she gloated with a wink.
‘Yeah, ‘cause you’re so unbelievably scary that they all do exactly as you say,’ he teased back.
She stuck her tongue out at him, then laughed and allowed him to pull her in for a hug.
It never ceased to amaze him, this whole split-personality thing of hers. Inside the Gryffindor common room she was loud and opinionated. She gave commands and was obeyed; she came up with revenge pranks involving other people’s underwear, for crying out loud!
But as soon as she set foot outside, she was transformed into the same, shy little thing she’d always been. It was a mystery to James how she’d ever been picked as Head Girl. Yes, she was the best in their grade in class and her record was spotless, thanks to her incredible luck. But her real strengths, the ones that made her who she was, were rarely seen outside of Gryffindor Tower. He could only assume that the Professor had been able to see through her mask to the real girl inside; the firecracker with an evil streak a mile wide, who protected the weak and small and manipulated him every chance she got.
‘I have to go,’ she told him quietly, the hint of a smile playing round the edges of her mouth, ‘Marcus will be wondering where I’ve got to. I promised him I’d go over the Ball Proposal again before we present it tomorrow.’
James stifled his groan with some difficulty. Marcus Antoniou was one of the biggest prats to ever walk the earth. He was also the Head Boy, a fact which confused James even more than Anastacia’s position. He couldn’t understand how a git like Marcus had ever gotten the badge. Not only did he try to hit on Anastacia every time they had rounds together, but he’d recently invented a number of situations that called for her near-constant presence at his side. James was convinced the Christmas Ball they were planning for the students was just another one of those inventions. He was looking forward to the day when the stupid idiot pushed Stac too far and she hexed him into oblivion.
‘I’ll walk you back,’ he offered, but she was already shaking her head.
‘I’ll be fine. I have to stop by the Slytherin dorms on the way, and there’s no way I’m taking you down there again. Not after last time.’
She elbowed him in the ribs when he smirked.
Still, he thought, rubbing his side, it had been worth it. Three Slytherins had ended up in the hospital wing after one of them had made a snide comment about Gryffindor’s chances of winning the Quidditch cup that year. He’d had detention for a month, but Merlin! It had been worth it!
‘See you tomorrow?’ he asked with a smile, her answering grin warming him oddly.
‘Of course. Where else am I going to go?’
She turned to leave, but he caught her hand and pulled her back.
She stood patiently, waiting for him to spit out whatever he was thinking. She always knew the right moments to be patient with him. It was one of the reasons they’d been such good friends for so long.
‘Thanks. For today;’ he said finally, ‘I owe you one.’
She laughed softly, rubbing the back of his hand, still clasped in hers.
‘You don’t owe me anything, dummer kopf. What are friends for if not to save you in potentially life-threatening situations?’
She headed off towards the portrait hole, throwing a quick ‘Night!’ over her shoulder as she went. James watched her say goodnight to Albus and Rose, Lily having already left to go to bed. Then, with a last good-natured threat to the room in general, which consisted of anyone staying up too late having to sleep in the dungeons, she climbed through the portrait hole and disappeared from sight.
Only when she was gone did James sigh and look around him. He noticed for the first time that a lot of the room was looking towards him speculatively. He raised an eyebrow at Sam.
‘Don’t look at me, mate.’ Sam replied hurriedly. He stuck his hands up as if warding off the questions. ‘I don’t know anything.’
‘Well, at least he’s finally admitting it.’
James joined in the laughter at Rose’s quiet riposte, as did Sam, who was never one to take a joke to heart.
‘Seriously, though, what?’ James asked again when the laughter had died down.
Sam looked at the floor for a second, before smiling rather sheepishly at James.
‘Well, okay, I might have told people that you’d be willing to answer any questions about tonight’s little escapade. Might have.’
‘Sure,’ James shrugged, ‘why not?’
‘Excellent,’ Sam smiled broadly. ‘Okay, first thing’s first – how the hell did you get the pants?’
Rose groaned audibly and James grinned.
‘Funny you should mention that,’ he began as he took a seat in front of the fire, ‘It’s actually a long story…’
Thank you so much again for reading. I hope you enjoyed this chapter as much as I enjoyed writing it. I know it's not much and pretty rubbish at that, but I'm really having fun developing my characters! Who knew writing could be such a good time? Ta, and if you find time, please review! It means a lot.
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