He had arrived late for the specific purpose of avoiding their accusing glares.
Unfortunately, today was one of those days when practice had run long, and everyone had chosen to hang around for an extra ten minutes. As hard as James tried to keep his head down as he trekked through the locker room, a masochistic impulse had him meeting the eyes of each of his teammates.
They glowered at him as he passed. James was fully aware that he had made it a hundred times worse for himself by not showing up for practice. Because now he was the very worst kind of team member: the guy who can’t play worth a damn but still thinks he can write his own ticket.
Baxter threw him a look that could freeze the sun. Baddock actually slammed his shoulder into James’ (the left one, thankfully) as he passed by, but James kept his head down and didn’t react. Baddock was a big guy with a bad temper, so this behavior could be considered almost friendly in light of the circumstances. With Hoskins, on the other hand, James had to remind himself to keep his cool – for Hoskins had thrown James such an arrogant, satisfied smirk that James was tempted to punch it right off his pretty-boy face.
Several of his fellow reserve players gave him resentful looks or rolled their eyes as he passed by. Burton and Stanley in particular – they would have given anything to play in a League match…and they wouldn’t have botched a play, or ruined Puddlemere’s chances, and they certainly wouldn’t have ditched practice two days later.
He nearly cringed when he caught the eye of Ian Smith. Smith had been the most supportive of James’ teammates over the past few months, but now all he did was shake his head in frustrated disappointment as he slung his bag over his shoulder and left the room.
After what seemed like an eternity, James made it to the manager’s office, where he found Michael Slattery, feet on his desk, perusing a sheet of League statistics. James shut the door behind him and hovered in the middle of the room, waiting for Slattery to acknowledge him.
“So,” said Slattery without looking up, “you were so satisfied with your performance the other day that you felt it unnecessary to come to practice anymore.”
“I quit, Mike.”
“You can’t quit.”
Slattery tossed the sheet onto one of the many piles in front of him and placed his hands behind his head. “So you’ve decided not to be a part of this team because your ego’s bruised?”
Not wanting to lose his head, James concentrated very hard on keeping his voice on the same level as Slattery’s calm tenor. “Am I a part of the team? Because the way they were all looking at me, you’d think I wasn’t.”
“Well, they’re a bit ticked off.”
“And I’m not? It may surprise you, but I’m aware that we lost, and I’m aware it was my fault. But the way they were looking at me, you’d think I’d missed the Snitch on purpose. Or killed someone’s firstborn, for God’s sake.”
“I think they’d rather it were the firstborn.”
An uncomfortable silence filled the space between them. Slattery regarded James with a look of concern and shook his head with a sigh.
“You look like hell, James.”
James didn’t answer and avoided Slattery’s eyes.
“Have you slept at all?” James shook his head. “Been eating?” Another shake of the head.
Slattery sighed again. “I understand how you feel, but don’t do this to yourself.”
James’ head snapped up. “You understand how this feels? Mr. I-Led-Puddlemere-to-Nine-League-Championships? When you were my age, people were just beginning to kiss your ass – you weren’t dealing with the death of your career!”
“Kid, sit down before I have to stuff you under a cold shower.”
James dropped into a chair across from Slattery, his head spinning and his chest heaving.
“Now, I’m going to let that attitude slide because I feel for you, I really do. And despite the fact that you’re an idiot sometimes, I guess I like you. But snap out of it, because I am still your manager – or that’s what it says on my door, anyway.” He smirked at his little joke.
James stared straight ahead, eyes unfocused. “Why do you want me to stay on the team?”
“Oh, the idealist in me would say the answer is team spirit, hope, faith, resilience, perseverance, and every other thing I know you’re not feeling right now. But considering the current state of things, I’ll tell you it’s because your contract runs the length of the season and we haven’t got any other reserve Seekers.”
“It’s not like you’re going to need me again. It was only dumb luck that I was needed to fill in anyway.”
“What if we do need you again?”
“MacMillan plays Chaser.”
“And he’s got two functioning arms, unlike me.” James scowled. “Besides, Eleanor will throw a fit if you ever try to bring me in again.”
“Eleanor doesn’t make that call.”
James glared at his manager. “So the way it works is, I stay on, I come to practices and get reminded five days a week that I’m worthless, and then at the end of the season you bring some bright new star, fresh from Hogwarts, to take my place in the reserves.”
Slattery didn’t answer, and seemed very focused on a spot on his desk.
“Oh, God, Mike, you’ve already been scouting someone, haven’t you?”
“Sit,” commanded Slattery, as James made to get up from his chair in frustration.
James paused, halfway off his seat, his eyes boring into his manager’s. He considered walking right out the door, purely for the sake of being insolent – but his body, almost against his will, sank back into the chair. He tore his eyes away from Slattery, letting them fall instead on a knot on the front of Slattery’s wooden desk. A peculiar sensation of numbness had overtaken his body, and his brain felt fuzzy as he fought to wrap his mind around everything that had gone utterly wrong with his life.
It wasn’t fair. It wasn’t fair that he was a washed-up nobody this early in the game. It wasn’t fair that nobody seemed to care how this was affecting James – all they cared about was filling the empty seat on his broom before he’d even had a chance to clear out his locker.
James’ breath came out in short, shallow bursts as he stared at the desk. He hated Michael Slattery, and he hated Puddlemere. He hated whoever had invented Quidditch. He hated whoever was responsible for giving him a gift and then taking it back.
“What do you want me to do, James? You think I like being in this position? Besides, you’re the one who just walked in here and tried to quit.”
James ignored Slattery, his eyes now scanning the posters of the old Puddlemere teams that lined the walls. His gaze lingered over each of the old Seekers, who waved back heartily and jostled their teammates in a friendly manner as they assumed their respective spots for the team photos. Derrick Branstone – he had had a successful few years as a professional Seeker before waking up one day and realizing his true calling as a magizoologist. At least he’d actually wanted to quit his career early. Miles Pemberley – he’d had a decent run with Puddlemere, although those were the years when Puddlemere had been absolute rubbish. He’d only had a forty percent record catching the Snitch, but they’d kept him because he’d been they best they could get at the time. David Prewett – he had spent twelve years with Puddlemere before leaving to start a family and work for the Ministry. His legend hadn’t been dragged through the mud – he was keeping it on a shelf somewhere, tarnish-free, to share with his grandchildren someday.
Good for them. It was just sodding excellent for them.
His eyes fell on the team poster from six years earlier, when he’d first been brought up from the reserves. The photograph version of James beamed with satisfaction at finding himself in the middle of such a talented group of Quidditch players. His older teammates punched him in the arm affectionately, mouthing words that James could still hear clearly in his mind. “Kid,” they’d called him. “Baby-Face James.” The little brother they’d never had.
Yeah, you’re really bleeding cool, kid, he thought bitterly as he eyed his former self. Guess where you’ll be in a few years.
At last, he wrenched his eyes away from the poster and turned to face Slattery. He realized that Slattery had been watching him quietly for the past few moments.
“So who is it, Mike? Who’s the next boy wonder from Hogwarts?” Or maybe it’s a girl, he added to himself. Albus would never let me live that one down.
“I can honestly tell you we’re not looking at anyone specifically. We’ve had to go and scout a few Chasers anyway, and we noticed there’s some good Seeking talent about to come out of there. Who knows – we might just try to arrange a trade.” He said this as if it were somehow less insulting than taking on a rookie.
“I hate you, Mike.”
“And then what do I do? Because I’m willing to bet you’re not about to give up your job. So what do I do after you’ve ripped my name off my robes and given them to someone else?”
“Stop being melodramatic. There are a lot of things you can do. You don’t have to give up your involvement in Quidditch altogether. You could even go coach – ”
“Don’t. For the love of everything magical, don’t tell me I can go coach kiddie Quidditch.”
“It’s just a suggestion, James. It’s nice to be involved in the community, you know?”
James threw Slattery a scathing look. “Bloody fantastic.”
“Or go work for the Department of Magical Games and Sports.”
“Wonderful. The sodding Ministry. Glad I came here, then – I was hoping professional Quidditch would be a stepping stone to the hallowed halls of the Ministry.”
Slattery rubbed his face wearily. “Ok, James, I’m done with this conversation. I get it – you’re upset. You’re upset, the team’s upset – I’m a Quidditch manager, not a bleeding therapist! I just don’t know what to tell you, kid. You were great. You were a star. Loads of fans still love you. None of this was your fault. You got hurt, and it’s rubbish, I agree. None of it was your fault, and you get the short end of the wand.” He sighed and looked evenly at the ragged mess that was James Potter. “But I have a job to do. And that’s to make sure we win. It’s harsh, James, I’m sorry. You’re not an idiot. You know how the game is played. Quidditch is not a – ”
“Faithful mistress,” finished James in a dull voice. “I know. But let’s not bring women into this.”
Slattery grinned and rolled his eyes. “You’ll still get the girls, James. They’ll be all over you, wanting to comfort you or whatever it is that women like to do.”
James let out a mirthless laugh. “Hoskins is going to get the girls now.”
“No, he’s not, because I’m going to have him practicing twenty-five hours a day. And you know what, kid? He’ll still never be close to what you were.”
James nodded at nothing in particular and rose from his chair.
“I still hate you, Mike.”
“It’s ok. It’s a risk I assumed when I took the job. Take the week off, James. I’ll make your excuses to the team. Get it out of your system, then get your head back into the game, because I’ll expect you at practice next Monday.”
Dazedly, James lifted one hand and ruffled his already unkempt hair. He could barely recall the contents of the conversation they’d just had. It was like a bad dream, hazy and disjointed, nonsensical, and still utterly terrifying. He gave a vague wave in Slattery’s direction and found himself floating out the door as if in a trance.
Without thinking about it, he drifted down a row of lockers and came to an instinctive stop in front of his own locker, number twelve. As he wavered there in front of the wall of polished metal – they’d finally replaced those rusty old lockers three years earlier – his eyes narrowed, and his mouth tightened. The fuzzy feeling in his head ebbed away as anger, shame, and disappointment flooded his stomach, forming a nauseating concoction. His hands clenched into fists, and though he drew several long, deep breaths, he didn’t find it the least bit calming.
Fury overtook him – fury at himself, at his manager, at his team…at everyone and everything within a hundred-mile radius. He barely knew who he was anymore. Nor did he feel remotely in control of his own body as he drew back his foot and kicked a dent the size of a crater into the bottom of locker number twelve.
It wasn’t even satisfying. He didn’t know exactly when he had left behind that phase of adolescence during which throwing and kicking things seemed to fix every problem imaginable…all he knew was that it definitely wasn’t working now. Why couldn’t it be that simple anymore? He stood in numb silence as the bang of his foot against metal echoed off the walls of the locker room and cascaded around him. And then, as his eyes began to sting in a telltale manner, he found himself drowning in the desire – no, the need – to get away from the Puddlemere facility before it all made him physically ill.
He couldn’t get home fast enough. He couldn’t open the door fast enough, and he couldn’t slam it behind him fast enough. And now that he was home, in his quiet, desolate flat, he had nothing to do except…nothing. That was perfectly fine with him.
He threw himself onto his ratty old sofa, not even bothering to clear off the various articles of clothing strewn over it. Were they dirty or clean? He couldn’t remember. That habit had always driven his mother crazy when he lived at home.
Puddlemere paid decently, and he could have bought a better sofa, but James liked the old one, which had once belonged to his Uncle Bill and Aunt Fleur. It was comfortable and worn-in, and, thankfully, it was one of the few pieces of furniture they had owned that wasn’t purple. At one point it had been cream-colored, although now it had taken on a dirty sand color – Aunt Fleur would die of shock if she ever saw what had become of it. But James loved it. Every time the stuffing started coming out, he’d just patch it up again.
Lily had nearly had a fit when she found out he didn’t have any throw pillows – apparently they were a basic necessity. James thought she was mad, but he accepted the pillows she bought him for Christmas one year and – although he would never admit it to her – he was extremely fond of them. One was red, for Gryffindor, with a massive, glittering Snitch embroidered on it. One was blue, with a pattern of Puddlemere bulrushes – maybe he wasn’t so fond of that one anymore. And one was shocking pink and fuzzy. Lily’s idea of a joke. James’ friends always took the mickey out of him for having it, but that one was his favorite.
From his spot on the sofa, James could see the pile of letters resting on the kitchen table. He had been bombarded with all this post in the past couple of days, from friends and family members, but he hadn’t read any of it after the letter from his dad. Probably a load of 'I’m sorry's and 'Everything will be ok's and 'How are you doing's. He wanted none of it.
His family was far too large, and his parents had far too many friends. He could only guess at how much post would continue to arrive over the next few days, from people he hadn’t seen in years and had no desire to talk to now.
With a groan, James pulled the pink fluffy pillow over his face and fell into a fitful sleep, dreaming of white-hot Snitches that streaked across the sky like shooting stars, leading him on a pointless pursuit to the ends of the earth and back again.