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Off the Rails by water_lily43175
Chapter 37: thirty-seven
I’d known Sinead Moran for a long time. The first time I’d properly met her had been when Brigid had excitedly introduced me and Freddie to her at the platform at King’s Cross at the beginning of our Christmas holidays in First Year.
But I’d known of her for a long time before that. How could I not have? Her Quidditch playing career had crossed with Mum’s; she was in fact only six years older than Mum, having made her World Cup debut at twenty. I only had vague memories of Mum’s playing career; she’d retired when I was three. Sinead, on the other hand, had retired five years later, and I had much more vivid memories of watching her playing.
She’d been incredible. One of the finest Chasers I’d seen; one of the finest the game had seen. The trio of Troy, Mullet, Moran had at the time been the most sublime, most innovative Chaser trio ever; they’d attempted – and pulled off – things that Chasers before could only have dreamed of. Ireland won an unprecedented three consecutive World Cups when they’d played in the Emerald Green. Indeed, few Chaser units since had rivalled the skill they’d demonstrated across that eight year period.
I’d always known I’d wanted to play Quidditch. I learnt to fly almost before I mastered walking; growing up I’d been surrounded by the sport, as part of a family who positively adored it (Nana Molly, Uncle Percy and Aunt Hermione aside). The only debate had been over which position I’d play. I’d been just as adept at Seeker as I had Chaser, seemingly influenced equally by both Mum and Dad.
It had been Sinead who’d decided it for me. I’d watched the 2002 World Cup final so many times that I knew it by heart. I’d been completely in awe of her talent, and that of her teammates. There had been something truly magical about the three of them; they seemed to know each others’ moves in advance, and those of their opposition to boot. It was like poetry in motion.
I loved being part of a team. Some of the best moments of my playing career were in the changing rooms, or in a post-match huddle on the pitch with my teammates, or planning tactics with Ryan and Della. For me, it wasn’t about the personal glory; it was about working with other people, for other people. Seeker was a lonely position to play. During a match you were out there on your own. You were basically playing your own game, pitched against the opposition’s Seeker in a battle of wits and eyesight.
But as a Chaser, you were a member of a team within a team. A third of a scoring attack; reliant upon your teammates, but able to create incredible moves if you were all on the same page. That was what had always captivated me, and the Irish Chasers had done it the most magnificently.
Sinead had only been coaching the Falcons for a year or so when I joined them. Before then, she’d been a Chaser coach for the Kenmare Kestrels, the team she’d represented her entire playing career. At the time, it had seemed odd that she’d move from the team she’d spent her entire post-Hogwarts life with, but she’d wanted a challenge. The Falcons had been languishing in the bottom half of the League for the previous few seasons, and she’d delighted in the chance to take the reins, especially as the same opportunity with her beloved Kestrels seemed a long way off.
She’d always wanted to win. It was the sure sign of a fine sports player; after all, what use was a player without that drive? As such, she only wanted the best players.
Some teams believed the mantra that teamwork was the most important thing; that a group of good, but not amazing players who worked well as a team was better than a group of superstars who refused to gel. Sinead partly believed that. She certainly knew the value of teamwork, of a group of players who’d fly into brick walls for each other. But she preferred a third option – a group of superstars who worked well together.
She didn’t look for superstars. She looked for people who had the potential to be superstars. More importantly, she looked for passion. She looked for desire. For drive. For enthusiasm. If her players developed into superstars, she wanted them to be well-grounded ones. She wanted people who would buy into her image, who’d never waver from that primary aim of playing for the team.
I’d known all of this when she’d signed me three years ago. It had been a huge honour, that she’d thought me worthy of her great squad, of her high ideals.
But I’d lost my footing. I hadn’t just tripped up; I’d plunged off a cliff. I’d hardly been a fine example of a well-grounded player. I was going to have to grovel more to Sinead than I’d done to anyone else so far.
It all hung on this. My entire career was hanging on this one moment. Because if my team wouldn’t take me back, what other team would sign me? I’d be labelled a liability, and no team wanted a liability.
Quidditch was my life. It was so much more than just a job, just a game. It was an institution, a religion. It was all I knew; it was my everything. Without it, I was just a kid with little magical skill to back up my inflated N.E.W.T results, and a lack of knowledge of real life. All I had was a nice smile and a small amount of charisma, which seemed to have abandoned me recently.
So I was going to fight for this. I wasn’t going to let it slip from my grasp.
The players were all in training when I arrived. It looked a small group; with six internationals and a player-coach elsewhere, and me suspended, their numbers were more than halved. It was lucky that the position left bereft by call-ups was Seeker, the one least dependant on team interaction; though they also had to operate with only one Beater, given that Cato, Cleo and Keira were all with England.
I snuck into the hut the back way, wanting to avoid any kind of confrontation with the teammates I’d let down so badly. Luckily, Sinead’s office was a corridor away from the changing rooms, so nobody would be likely to see me while I waited for her to finish in training.
Standing nervously outside the office door, I could hear the team outside. The training calls, the friendly insults. The laughter. That was what I missed the most. A part of me craved to join them, as though nothing had changed.
But I waited.
I had no idea how this conversation was going to go. I’d been surprised – pleasantly so – at the relative ease with which I’d patched things up with my family so far. Admittedly I’d found visiting Dad rather daunting, and I’d had to explain a lot to him so he could understand my point of view. But Brigid had forgiven me quicker than I’d thought, while Mum, Al, Lily and Freddie had barely been a problem at all.
I guessed that was because they were family – and Brigid was as good as by now. We were a family who stuck by each other through thick and thin; it was one reason why I’d always loved being a part of such a large family, even if it did increase the odds of having irritating relatives. They loved and cared for me, so they were just relieved that I was okay. I wondered whether there was a chance I’d face repercussions at a later date; it seemed almost unfair that I should get away with being such an idiot. But I could cope with any repercussions; I knew that now. Just so long as I was forgiven.
Sinead was a different issue, because she wasn’t family. And she wouldn’t let the fact she was a family friend, or that I was best friends with her daughter, get in the way of things. I was her employee, and she had her team to think of. I’d have to do a lot more grovelling, I knew that much.
It would be worth every minute I spent in her office, though, if I were to be reinstated.
The voices began to grow closer, as the team made their way into the hut. Training had finished for the day. My stomach clenched with nerves.
And then Sinead rounded the corner.
She was in her training gear and clutching her broomstick; she was clearly taking a much more hands-on approach in training than she normally did. Generally she was content with barking out orders from the ground. I wondered if the limited numbers had anything to do with her change in approach.
“James,” she greeted me with a sincere smile as she reached the office. “It’s good to see you.”
She opened the door and gestured for me to lead the way in; I did so, and sat down gingerly in the chair opposite her desk. She leant her broomstick up against the wall, and sat down in her chair. She leaned forwards, her arms crossed on the desk, and looked at me thoughtfully. The smile was now gone.
“Why are you here?” she said.
I frowned, slightly bemused at the question. “I – I want to get my spot back in the squad...” I said.
I was once more taken aback by the question she put to me. “Well, because it’s my job, and I enjoy it, and-”
“Why should I take you back?”
My hands began to shake ever so slightly, and my mouth felt dry. I’d known this wouldn’t be easy, but the questioning was making me uneasy. From what Brigid had said to me, I’d felt certain that my suspension would be lifted even if the process was a hard one. But the approach Sinead was taking had me totally on the back foot, and now I wasn’t even sure if she would take me back.
“You know what I expect from my players, James,” she continued when I said nothing. “Why should I take you back now?”
I didn’t have a response. I didn’t know why she should take me back. I’d screwed up; why did I deserve another chance?
And then I heard muffled laughter, coming from the changing rooms, and a voice. Julia Horton’s voice. Julia. The woman who’d been my mentor when I’d first arrived at the Falcons. The woman whose starting spot I’d taken and hadn’t relinquished. And ... she’d known, all along, that she was helping me at her own expense. But she’d done it anyway. She’d put the team first, just as she’d always done and always would do – just like everyone in that training room did. And I loved them for it, every one of them. Alfie, our captain, who always had an encouraging word and a smile for anyone and everyone who wore the Falcons colours; Laura, who only two seasons ago had turned down a chance to play in a friendly game for England because it clashed with our exhibition match against the Stuttgart Snidgets, which she wasn’t even playing in; Sophie, who had left the Falcons a couple of years ago for the Arrows but had returned after only one season, despite having started all of their games, because she missed us.
And then there was Della, and Klaus, who’d chosen the Falcons over their home team the Harriers numerous times over; Stefan, who’d come to England on a family holiday with his father Viktor, come with us to watch the Falcons play the Cannons, and had never left Falmouth since; Cato and Cleo, who already referred to themselves as Falcons with immense pride...
And Ryan and Roxanne. My Gryffindor teammates for years; I’d played every single game in my six years on the team with at least one of them, and two years with both. Ryan had been my captain for two years, and then I’d been Roxanne’s for two. And then I’d followed Ryan here to play for the Falcons. I’d played alongside him more than I had anyone else. We knew each other’s game inside out; we could pull off almost every manoeuvre in the book, and adapt to any style of play by now. Half the reason I looked so good in my matches was because he made me look good. I’d do absolutely anything for him, both on and off the pitch, and I knew I’d always have his support in return. And as for Roxie ... well, she was my little cousin, and I loved her to bits. And while she might have taken my starting spot for the time being, I didn’t really mind that; after all, at least it meant she was more likely to stay with us.
Because I knew that I’d never leave, not for as long as I was welcome within the changing room. Even if I couldn’t regain my place, even if another club offered me all the money in the world. I didn’t want the money. Just being in the Falcons squad and contributing all I could to the team’s success was more important to me than advancing my own personal interests. I’d wanted to get into that England squad more than anything, but I’d thrown that chance away, at least for the time being.
I wasn’t going to do the same with my Falcons spot.
“I love this club,” I said, sitting upright. “I love the people, the atmosphere, the supporters. I came here because I wanted to play Quidditch, and you offered me that chance. I came because of you; you’re my absolute idol on the pitch, and my best friend’s mum to boot. And I came here because of Ryan too. I always loved playing with him at school, and I wanted the chance to do so again. But now, it’s about so much more than just that. I couldn’t even begin to imagine playing for anyone else; it wouldn’t be the same at all. I love Quidditch; it’s my absolute everything, and I don’t know what I’d do without it. I know I’ve messed up, but I won’t do it again, I promise you that. This means too much to me for me to throw it away again. I know I’ve screwed up my England chance but I don’t care about that any more; I just want to play for you, for the Falcons, for the other guys. I want us to win the League again, and I’ll do everything I possibly can to help us do that. I know you’ll probably pick Roxie over me now, because she’s doing really well, but I’m fine with that, and I’ll help her out as much as I can – I can show her how to tell when Della’s going to do one of her reverse passes, because I noticed she missed a couple against the Catapults, and she can’t quite pull off a Porskoff Ploy with Dell yet-”
Sinead raised a hand and I fell silent.
“When I suspended you,” she said, “it was because I had no other choice. I didn’t want to at all; in fact, it was the last thing I wanted to do. But I have to follow the League rules, and they firmly state that actions like that can’t be condoned. I’m sorry I couldn’t tell you in person. I think you were at least owed that courtesy, and I didn’t give it to you. I tried to get in touch with you for a couple of weeks afterwards, but I couldn’t get through; Brigid says you were hiding from everyone. I wanted to help you out, because you’re one of my players; you’re my responsibility. And as a coach, a mother and a fellow human being I wanted to do all I could to help you. I still do.”
I had a horrible feeling that there was a ‘but’ coming.
“I need to know that this won’t happen again,” she continued. “I can’t afford to have my players acting like this.”
“It won’t,” I said hurriedly. “I know what I did wrong, and I know what I lost because of it. I won’t let that happen again, I promise.”
She still didn’t look entirely convinced.
“Demelza Robins wants you to get some kind of help-”
“But I don’t need help!” I protested. “I just let things get the better of me, that’s all, and it won’t happen again.”
“But how did it happen?”
“I – what?”
“How did it happen? If you don’t know how it happened, then you can’t prevent it from happening again, can you?”
It was a valid point.
“I don’t like the attention,” I admitted. “The attention I get because of being Dad’s son. And then everything just went wrong at the same time. But it’s fine now, it’s all fine.”
Sinead had a peculiar expression on her face. It was, I realised, the same one her daughter had worn only the previous day.
“Are you sure?” she said.
Well. I’d sorted out things with Dad. I’d patched things up with Brigid and Freddie. But I had no idea where I stood with Carlotta.
“I’m sure,” I said firmly.
She smiled, ever so slightly.
“You’re a good player, James. A damn good player. One of the best I’ve ever had. One of the best I’ve ever seen. That kind of talent should be nurtured, not wasted.” She took a deep breath. “I’ll take you back-”
“You will?” I said excitedly, half-rising out of my chair. “Thank you-”
She again raised a hand to silence me.
“I have some provisos,” she said. “Firstly, you undergo some proper media training. That way, you’ll know how to handle questions you don’t want to answer even when Brigid isn’t there to do it for you. Secondly, no more drinking.”
“What? But that had nothing to do-”
“I don’t care,” she said flatly. “You lot constantly undermine me on that rule. If I can enforce it in any way, I’m bloody well going to.”
“But that’s not fair; nobody else will obey-”
“This is for you, not for them,” she pointed out. “Besides, the international players will be under strict instructions not to drink, so you won’t be the only one. And I’ll be strongly advising Roxanne to follow that lead as well; she’s pretty much first team now, and we’re coming to the business end of the season. I need you all firing on all cylinders if we’re going to win this title again, and I’m not having anybody pissing about and risking our chances.”
She surveyed me for a moment, and her expression softened. In a trice, she went from Sinead the manager to Sinead the friend’s mother.
“It’s good to see you’re okay, really it is,” she said with a smile. “We were all so worried about you. I tried so hard to get through to you; in fact, the whole squad did. We’ve missed you, we really have. You’re a huge part of what makes this team the happy place you speak of, and I think it’s important you understand your worth in this team –not because I’m a Quidditch manager who doesn’t want to lose a player, but because I think part of your problem is that you don’t see your own worth. You’re a wonderful player, and a wonderful person, and I want you to realise that.”
I smiled slightly, touched by the words.
“Thanks,” I said awkwardly.
“Now, you say your England chance is gone-”
“Well, it is, isn’t it?” I said glumly. “At least for this World Cup, anyway. None of the others are going to go off their heads, and it’d take a fall from about a hundred feet to injure one of them badly enough to make them pull out. And professional players don’t fall off their brooms often.”
She smiled sympathetically.
“Perhaps it is,” she said. “But you’re certainly still on their radar, so you have every chance of becoming an international player once this World Cup is over.”
“Maybe,” I shrugged; any chance I now had seemed a long way off, and so it was hard to keep it at the forefront of my mind. “But there’s a League Cup to play for first. And I have to play well for Ryan, and Della, and the other international guys who are looking for starting spots-”
“Though I’m sure Della at least is nailed on,” she said smoothly.
Given that she was Germany’s vice captain, I had to agree.
“I know that Ryan’s not entirely certain on his chances of starting, though,” she continued. “I think he will. He says – and I’m inclined to agree – that Aisling Quigley and Fiona O’Sullivan will both play; it seems silly to split up Bats teammates. But is Ryan better than Shane Connolly? I’d say so.”
I nodded in agreement.
“Connors still struggles with the Porskoff,” I added. “We’ll have to do as many as possible, especially against the Kestrels, show Desmond Ryan that Murph’s been doing them for years – I mean, if I get to play, that is,” I added awkwardly, rubbing the back of my neck.
She smiled ever so slightly, but gave nothing away.
“Go and see the others. Merlin knows they’re all dying to see you.”
I grinned, and got up from my seat.
“Thank you, James. For coming back.”
“I’ll always come back to the Falcons,” I vowed.
I got home half an hour later to find Aunt Audrey sitting in my kitchen, a plate of shortbread in front of her.
“What are you doing here?” I asked as she got up and hugged me.
“Wanted to see you, didn’t I? I figured you probably won’t have the time to come and see little old me, now you’re back playing again, so I’ve come to you instead.”
“Who says I’m playing again?” I raised an eyebrow, and sat down opposite her.
“Brigid said you had a meeting with Sinead today. And there’s no way she’d refuse to have you back.” She busied herself with the teapot.
“I don’t know; she didn’t seem all that enthused at first...”
She raised an eyebrow.
“James,” she said, “she’d be an idiot not to take you back.”
And that was when I realised it had all been a test. All of Sinead’s questioning ... she’d just wanted to make sure I really did want this. She’d wanted me to realise how much it meant to me. And she’d trusted me to give her the answer she wanted to hear.
“There’s no guarantee I’ll play though,” I accepted a mug of tea from Aunt Audrey as she sat down. “Roxanne’s good. Really good.”
“Did you see her today?”
“Yeah, I did.” I grinned, remembering the way she’d nearly knocked me off my feet the moment I’d entered the changing rooms. The most touching thing about it had been that my return signalled a possible demotion back to reserve for her, but she didn’t seem to give a damn about that. She’d just been happy I was okay.
“You’ll play,” Aunt Audrey said confidently. “Sinead Murphy’s no mug.”
I didn’t say anything. I wasn’t nearly as sure as she was. Instead, I took a piece of shortbread from the plate.
“Darling, I wanted to talk to you about something.” Aunt Audrey looked slightly nervous. “Brigid came to see me earlier, about you. And why all of this happened. She’s concerned that you don’t know how to deal with your anger-”
“I don’t have anger issues!” I said indignantly. “I hardly ever get angry-”
“But when you do...” she began.
She didn’t need to finish the sentence.
“I know.” I sighed. “I went overboard. But ... that was just because ... I got angry when Carlotta left. Because it made me unearth all my ... I just felt pressured. Because of Dad. And Carla brought it all up, so when she left, it made me angry. And I blamed that on the media, because it was their fault she found out everything about Dad. And then Brigid was angry with me, so I was angry back, and then I went to the bloody Lair...”
It had all been salvageable until I’d gone to the Basilisk’s Lair, I considered now. At that point, I’d just upset Brigid a little bit, but nothing overly serious. It had been after that fateful night out that the harm had really been done ... with her, Albus, Rose and eventually everyone else, when I threw my fists at that photographer.
But it had all stemmed from that ill-feeling I’d had towards Dad for years, along with my hatred of the media.
And then the two had combined in the shape of a pissed off Carlotta...
“Things are cool with Dad now,” I reassured Aunt Audrey. “That won’t happen again. And Sinead’s going to make sure that Brie’s always with me when I talk to media, so they can’t overstep the line and I don’t have a reason to get pissed off with them. So it ... it’s all fine now...”
Almost. Two of the three elements that had combined to produce such a poisonous result had been dealt with. The third element didn’t seem to want anything to do with me.
“That’s all very well,” Aunt Audrey said, “but I do think you need to lay off the Firewhisky for a while.”
I smiled wryly.
“You’re too late; Sinead’s already done that.”
“Good for her,” she said approvingly. “There’s something else we need to address. You don’t like the attention.”
“No,” I said, relieved that someone understood me on that one. “I don’t-”
“Then why become a professional Quidditch player?”
And that was when it hit me.
It had been staring me in the face the entire time. The reason why I was the one who’d had the breakdown, and not Albus or Lily. None of us liked the attention or the comparisons. But Albus worked in the Ministry; even if he was training to be an Auror, it still wasn’t a very glamorous job in the eyes of the Prophet; not enough to garner their full attention, at any rate. Perhaps once he was working on his own cases, he’d get more inches, but while he was just a trainee, he provided no juicy tidbits whatsoever. And most of Lily’s life made no sense to them. Even the bits that might, she kept private.
I went and chose a profession that found myself almost permanently residing in the back pages of the Prophet, and often the front too. Once I’d become a Quidditch player, of course they were going to talk about me more than anyone else. I was already well-known; I’d just given the papers something else to talk about. I’d given them a reason to hype me up.
That had been the reason for Brigid and Sinead’s peculiar looks. They’d realised, all along. Because why would someone who hated being famous, choose a profession that made them even more so?
To me, it didn’t matter that I had my own legacy now, even if it was only comprised of two and a half seasons with the Falcons. The trouble was, I’d never know how much of my media appeal was down to my own successes. Dad’s fame had been a huge springboard, and as far as I was aware, I was still on it. I didn’t hate being famous, I just hated that it was because of Dad. And it always would be because of him. No matter how successful a Quidditch player I might become, news articles would always link me back to the man who defeated Lord Voldemort.
“I just wanted to play Quidditch,” I told my mug. “I didn’t want to play it because of the following it has; I wanted to play it because I love the game. It was the only future I could envisage. It still is the only thing I can see myself doing.” I looked up at Aunt Audrey. “I guess I just have to learn to ignore the attention it gets me.”
She smiled slightly.
“Perhaps you do,” she said. “Perhaps you do.”