Chapter 3 : Practice
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Bridget smacked Oliver playfully on the chest, and then it became somewhat clearer.
"He's the worst boyfriend ever," Bridget explained fully with an enormous smile that showed off every one of her glimmering teeth. "Right, love?"
"What? Oh, yeah, Bridge."
I laughed humorlessly and avoided Oliver's gaze while Bridget continued chatting garrulously.
Nora tried very hard not to laugh but could not suppress the guffaw from leaving her mouth as she choked slightly on her piece of steak. It looked a bit odd because Nora ate her beef very raw so there was a bit of blood running down her chin that could not have clashed more with her pearl earrings and sky blue cardigan if it had been a house-elf in a tea cozy.
"It's not funny," I fumed as I shoveled a rather large forkful of baked potato into my mouth to hide my pout. I looked over to see a tear rolling down her face. "Avoiding any severe injury, I'm glad you choked," I told her spitefully.
Because Nora was occupied swilling back water to clear her throat, Carter came to her rescue, as usual. "Oh, c'mon, Hayley, it is a little funny."
"As in drowning puppies is a 'little funny,' then sure. You both have twisted senses of humor."
I crossed my arms over my chest defensively and slumped in my straight-backed kitchen chair that did not match any of the furniture in the eclectically decorated room.
After returning from practice, I came home to the flat to find that Nora had made my favorite dinner of steak, baked potatoes, stuffed mushrooms, and Caesar salad. Both she and Carter, who, like most people, rarely missed on occasion in which Nora cooked, were very eager to hear all about my first day.
Carter Abrams, two years older than us, had never played for the Ravenclaw team while he was at school, not that Nora or I talked to him much at Hogwarts. However, he did know quite a bit more about the game than Nora did.
Nora, Merlin bless us her, was a bit Quidditch challenged. After dealing with me for over nine years, she knew the basics of the game but never seemed to pick up much more than that. She was a much bigger fan of the muggle sport hockey. Nevertheless, she was always there to support me at all of my matches while we were in school. Nora liked to say that while she was not a huge Quidditch aficionado but she was the McCoy's biggest fan.
Of course, I knew part of the reason why she went to the matches with me was to gape at the blokes. Hence, I was not surprised when one of the first questions she had asked me before I had even picked up my fork was if there were any fit players on the team.
At first, I had dodged her question by mentioning Jack Copeland. Nora had always had a thing for blondes, and even though Jack was a bit more of a brunette, I figured I could distract her. Besides, Jack was rather cute in a labrador sort of way.
However, Nora's vicarious lust was not easily thwarted and eventually she had me spilling my guts out about Oliver Wood. I had mentioned him to her in passing after my tryout, but I had not referred to him by name. Once I had explained everything fully, including discovering that Wood was dating Bridget Cooke, Nora had been unable to cease laughing.
"Please stop," I begged finally.
Nora took another quick sip of water and placed a hand over her heart. "I'm sorry, golubushka, but I just cannot believe that you didn't know! Their faces are plastered all over the place. It's been such a media fired thing because Witch Weekly – "
I scowled at the name of that insipid rag. I absolutely refused to look at it, even though Brendan, for reasons unfathomable to me, subscribed to it.
"—named him Most Eligible Bachelor about two years ago, and then he was snatched up by the owner's daughter! More people probably know about their sex life than do about what's going on in the Ministry."
I frowned. I had never relished in celebrity gossip the way that Nora did. That girl consumed scandal because, as she opined, "I fancy my own life a bit more afterwards."
"So? How was I supposed to know?" I argued belligerently.
"Don't you get like five Quidditch magazines?" Carter asked me.
"Yes, but I only read them for recaps on the games. Who cares what the player's favorite way to wind down is or what product he cannot so subtly namedrop for advertising purposes?"
"Oh, Hayles," Nora said with a sigh as she stuffed a mushroom into her mouth. "You've got to sort out your priorities. Only you would look at a boy's broom instead of looking at his...broom."
She did not even have the decency to look embarrassed. I supposed it came down to her heritage. I had only met Nora's extended family once when they visited from Russia, but her grandmamma was a bit of a Blast-Ended Skank.
I sighed. "Whatever, it doesn't matter. It's not like anything was going to happen anyway."
"Plenty of blokes out there," Carter agreed with me. "Ow!" he winced as he rubbed where Nora smacked him in the chest gingerly. "What was that for, Ellenore?"
She swatted him again, her bracelet swinging brazenly on her delicate wrist. "That was for using my full name. Also, how dare you tell Hayley to just back down? Hayles, in all the time we've been best friends, have you ever run away from a challenge? Remember when Collin told you that you couldn't eat one hundred chocolate frogs in an hour's time?" She frowned as we both recalled that day in Fourth Year. "Sure, it probably wasn't the smartest plan because you puked forever afterwards, but you proved him wrong! There's no ring on Bridget Cooke's finger. Oliver Wood is fair - and might I add very attractive - game. Think of this as the ultimate competition."
"Wow, women are brutal," Carter observed.
I rolled my eyes at Nora's little inspirational speech. "You just want me to get a boyfriend so we can double date."
"Yes!" Nora admitted. "But, also, Hayles, I want you to have somebody. It's been ages since you've had a bloke in your life."
"Not ages," I argued.
"You know, come to think of it, Hayley, I don't think I've really seen you with anyone since Nora and I started dating."
"Carter, you are not invited to our flat anymore."
"Shush, ignore her, dorogoy," Nora said. "She's just being pissy because she's single. No triple chocolate fudge cake for her."
I whimpered and jutted out my lower lip pleadingly. "Triple chocolate fudge cake? I'll be good."
Nora beamed and flicked her dark red hair over her shoulder. "Oh, Hayley, sometimes I envy how gloriously simple you are."
After my second slice of cake, I took a long shower to wash off all the sweat and chocolate residue and then sat at the freshly scrubbed wooden kitchen table – Carter's doing, he had to earn his squatting privileges – and wrote my family a letter while Nora and Carter went to her bedroom for some alone time. Never having been the best with words, I nibbled on the edge of my tattered quill until I came up with the right thing to say.
First day went well. Just had a meeting with Richard Cooke and went on a run with the team. They seem like a nice lot. Coach reminds me a bit of Ayden when he went through that stage when he was 13. Dad, the contract seemed fine to me. I'll bring a copy next time I see you. I met Connor O'Reilly. Remember when Brendan was obsessed with him when he played for the Irish?
Well, I better go. I've got practice at six-thirty tomorrow morning. Not quite as glamorous as I thought it would be, but I'm excited to start training. I'll see you all soon. Collin, Nora made triple chocolate fudge cake. I'm supposed to save you a piece but no promises. You snooze, you lose.
Satisfied, I magically duplicated the letter three times, addressed them, and then had Nora's owl Anzhela deliver them out. A bit wary of Nora's room, I brushed my teeth as quickly as possible, set my alarm for 5:30 AM, and collapsed into bed.
Though quite a bit had happened today and there was much to consider, I fell asleep almost as soon as my head hit the pillow.
The next morning, I resented the screeching of my alarm for a brief moment before I remembered that in one short hour I would be attending my first official day of practice as a professional Quidditch player.
Eagerly, I threw open the blinds on my window, forgetting that I lived in England where the sun never bloody shone. However, not even the gray mist could put a damper on my spirits. Once I had used the loo quickly, I changed into a pair of navy blue mesh shorts, a sports bra, and a stretchy tank top. Heading back to the loo, I tied on my trainers and brushed my teeth while getting a bit of my stretching out of the way.
With about forty minutes left until practice began, I went into the kitchen and started frying up some scrambled eggs and cheese and made a couple slices of toast. Despite the early hour, I refrained from drinking coffee, which I found always weighed me down, and opted for a healthy glass of orange juice.
Tapping my foot anxiously at our small kitchen table, I was chewing a piece of buttered toast when I heard a low groan and a door creak.
Our flat was small and had thin walls, old doors, and rusty hinges. Thank God, Merlin, and Kennilworthy Whisp for silencing charms.
"'Lo, Carter," I greeted amusedly as he stumbled out of Nora's bedroom. His white undershirt was riding up a bit above the waistband to his checkered boxers. It was not the first time this had happened, but it was always a bit of fun to have a go at him. Single birds had to have some form of entertainment, after all. "Have a nice night?"
He looked around in confusion for a second before turning to me. He brought his hand down from scratching his blonde hair and blearily rubbed at his eyes. "Hayley? Whatchya doing up this early?"
He nodded and grumbled back a response I could not make out.
"Don't forgot to put the toilet seat back down," I reminded him as I snickered into my glass of juice.
He gestured his hand clumsily behind his back to signal that he had heard me and then disappeared behind the door of the loo.
I got up and rinsed off my dishes and then grabbed my broom and wand before apparating to the pitch, which was a bit north of London.
When I arrived, I was about fifteen minutes early. Fletcher was already there. As was Wood.
"You're here early," Fletcher pointed out as I walked up to them on the north side of the grassy pitch. "That's good. Dedication is important to the game."
"Aww, Fletch, how do you have a habit of making everything sound like a badly worded inspirational poster?" Oliver teased him as he set down a large equipment trunk he had been carrying.
"You're one to talk, boy," Fletcher countered.
"True," Oliver agreed. "C'mere," he directed at me. "You can help me lug some more equipment out. Sore this morning, 24?" he added when we were out of Fletcher's earshot.
"Nope," I lied as I scooted more to the left to maintain a half meter distance between him and me.
"Really? Cause I would have reckoned that losing yesterday would have had you nursing some sort of pain."
I frowned at his smirk and resisted the urge to elbow him in his toned gut because that would break my new rule about personal space. "Had to let you win, didn't I? Don't want to upset the pride of my new Captain."
He ran his thumb over his lip and grinned before stooping down and grabbing a pewter equipment trunk identical to the one I had seen him carrying before. "What you've got to learn about real Quidditch players, 24, is that we don't let people win."
I missed his expression because I had reached down to grab the other trunk. Bloody hell, it was heavy.
"And we usually leave people sore the next morning," he added softly as he brushed past me.
I nearly dropped my trunk.
Immediately, I felt ridiculous. I had spent far too many years with three older brothers. He was not talking about sex.
When I did not move, he glanced back to see what happened and then snickered.
Had he been talking about sex?
I whined quietly, adjusted the trunk in my arms, and then wordlessly followed him.
Thankfully, most of the players were already crowded around Fletcher when we made it back. I heaved my trunk down beside the other equipment and then scampered over to where Jack Copeland was standing. He gave me a friendly, albeit tired, smile, which I happily returned as I appreciated the way normal people were supposed to react.
We stood in comfortable silence for a bit together until Bryce Stone, the smart aleck with dimples, showed up.
Fletcher barked at us to start with a few sprints up and down the grass pitch.
I appreciated the order and lost myself in the physicality, which allowed me to clear my head and focus purely on the game.
After about fifteen minutes of that, Fletcher broke us up into groups depending on our position, and I found myself faced with Tony Deering again.
He grinned at me. "Ready to learn the secret Puddlemere passing drills, Hayley?" he asked me cheerfully as he fiddled with a Quaffle in his hands.
"Stick with Tony," he requested. "Coach makes me feel like an old geezer like Fletch."
Connor reached up to yank the gray hair on Tony's head with a grin. "Right," he added dryly before stealing the red Quaffle out of Tony's hands.
"Oi! You're one to talk, O'Reilly. It won't be too long till you're in my shoes. How many kids you got now?"
Jack nudged my shoulder with his and grinned at me when I looked over at him. His face was tanned and almost as dark as his sandy brown hair from the hours spent in the sun.
"They're always like this," he told me conspiratorially. "Something about being old makes you think telling the same jokes over and over again still makes them funny."
I laughed and flicked my attention over to where the two men were examining the other's gray hairs. "No kidding."
"So thanks for signing up," Jack added. "You had no idea how bad it was with the Dominator, as well. Three old blokes? I swear, I was getting gray hair at twenty-two."
"You poor bloke."
"Well, things seem to be picking up quite nicely. C'mon, let's go remind them that we've got Quidditch to play."
I grinned enthusiastically. "Let's."
Jack turned to the two men and whistled loudly, using the fancy method with his fingers that always seemed so impressive to those, like me, who could not do it.
While I admired his talent, Jack continued normally and reminded Connor and Tony that we had to start practice before it turned a reasonable hour or Fletcher would be very grumpy.
Tony laughed and then told us to leave our brooms with the rest of the equipment.
Curious, I carefully placed my Nimbus out of harm's way and then trailed behind Tony, who was tossing a Quaffle up and down as he walked.
He led us to the east side of the pitch and then sat down in the grass and crossed his legs in a pretzel formation. Tony offered us all an encouraging smile.
After checking my periphery to ensure that Connor and Jack were complying, despite their sighs, I sat down in the little circle we had formed.
"All right," Tony began, running his palms over the grooves in the Quaffle as he spoke. "I know it sounds a bit mental, but I thought we could spend the first hour today just trying to get a feel for each other. The chemistry is going to be completely different now that Dom's gone. He had a very forceful approach. It was a bit of a bold - I'm plainly coming straight at you so you better get the fuck out of my way - but Dom was so huge that people usually did as he said."
When Tony paused, Connor and Jack sniggered a bit.
"However, now that he's gone, we don't have the luxury of that brute force and fear of getting plowed down by the Dominator. Hayley, while skilled, lacks a certain….mass. But it's no matter! I've brought it up with Fletcher, and we both agree that now is the time to streamline our offensive strategy. I want to try a few new plays that will confuse rather than frighten our opponents, and that will make facing Puddlemere even more terrifying," he joked with a weak chuckle. "So this," he emphasized as he tossed the ball into the air, "is a Quaffle."
Jack coughed loudly.
The sandy haired bloke flicked his eyes over to me and turned slightly pink as he grumbled under his breath about nicknames. "We know what a Quaffle is, Antone."
"I told you we are starting from scratch. This is going to be an organic process."
"Taken any poppy elixir, mate?" Connor questioned as he shook his head in Tony's direction.
"Coaching you two wankers for four years, and you have absolutely no faith in me. Hayley, you've just been promoted as my favorite Chaser."
I grinned uneasily and then caught the Quaffle he threw in my direction.
"Okay, what I want you to do," Tony prompted, "is pass back and forth. Don't throw to the same person every time and mix up the combinations. No talking, just rely on eye contact. We're working on instinct here."
Connor grumbled something about Tony's head being addled by Bludgers, but Tony ignored it and urged me to start and said he would be back later after he finished working a bit with Bridget.
I nodded and then locked eyes with Jack and threw him the ball.
To my surprise, the exercise was actually quite brilliant. At first, we had to focus a great deal to get each other's attention, but then it started to flow. After a while, I was able to accurately predict to whom Connor and Jack were planning on tossing. Additionally, I figured out that Connor's passes had more strength when he pushed with his left rather than right hand and that Jack's throws often curved to the right. I probably could have closed my eyes and would know who had thrown the Quaffle merely from the feel of the catch.
When an hour had passed, Tony came back with a smug smile plastered on his face. "Not as mental now is it, eh?"
Connor rolled his eyes and then heaved the ball at Tony's head.
"Sorry, Tony, that was a Quaffle."
Continuing with his basic approach, Tony had us get our brooms and start flying around together. Jack inquired why Tony did not have us put our brooms on the ground and shout up, which earned him a smack in the back of the head from Connor paired with an affectionate scolding about him being a snot-nosed kid.
"Sorry, Dad," Jack had apologized sheepishly, looking genuinely apologetic for being disrespectful.
We tried out a bunch of different formations and unanimously concluded that it made the most sense for the primary offensive group to be me in the middle with my fellow Chasers flanking my sides. Being the lightest, I had speed on my side, and Jack and Connor were better able to thwart any Bludgers or sidelong attacks from opposing players.
Once Tony was satisfied and my bum was already beginning to hurt from sitting on my broom for so long, he brought the Quaffle back out and we began to practice passing patterns. It was difficult at first. We all missed a few tosses, and the blokes had a tendency to throw it too high.
"Oi!" Tony called as he zoomed towards Jack. "She's not Dom."
"Well, obviously," Jack agreed as he looked at me quickly before turning away when he met my gaze. "Honestly, man, we don't want to offend her lady sensibilities."
I laughed loudly, and all three blokes turned to look at me. I shrugged dismissively. "Three older brothers," I supplied as my reasoning. It had been ages since I still had the ears of a lady. Part of me doubted if I ever did.
"That'll do it," Connor agreed dryly.
"What I meant, runt," Tony said to Jack, "is that she's not as tall as Dom is. You've got to break the habituation."
"Sorry, Tony, it's just seems a bit impossible," Jack said with a sigh as he slumped over on his broom. "Reversing four years of playing patterns."
"That's why we practice, Copeland," barked Fletcher as he flew toward us. Immediately, we all sat up a bit straighter on our brooms. "For hours and hours and hours until your ass can get it right."
Jack mumbled back a sheepish response and blushed in apology.
Fletcher removed his blue cap from his head and wiped away a bit of sweat before placing the cap back on his gray, thinning hair. "Deering, you can head back down to help with Bridget. She's been struggling with her Wronskei Feint lately. Seems too staged for my liking. I'll deal with this lot."
Working with Fletcher was intimidating to say the least. He had a quiet strength about him that immediately made you respect him. He reminded me a bit of McGonagall from my time back in Hogwarts, but his lips did not thin out the way hers did; instead, Fletcher had a tendency to fidget with his cap when he was frustrated.
His knowledge of the game was pretty remarkable, though. He easily figured out how to adjust the height problems to some of our throws by altering the angles of our positions. As soon as I moved forward a bit and Jack moved more to his right, our passing became much more precise.
Fletcher also worked with us on a rotating pattern in which Jack and I flew in a circle around Connor as though we were one of those Muggle Ferris Wheels, as Connor shot like a bullet down the pitch. I nearly fell off my broom at one point, but we got the basic motion down after about a half an hour.
Unfortunately, because Fletcher was so attuned to the nuances of Quidditch, he easily pointed out the deficiencies in my technique.
"McCoy, that's the sixth time you've pushed with your elbow instead of your shoulder. Who taught you how to pass?"
"My brother Ayden."
"Yeah, well, he throws like a bird…Uh, no offense," he added curtly after Jack coughed loudly.
"None taken," I replied gruffly as I very nearly swallowed my tongue.
"Come with me. We've got some work to do."
I nodded and flew over to him as he gave Connor and Jack a long list of drills to perform.
A small part of me, namely my sore bum, was grateful to get off my broom after three hours of practice. My legs, especially my inner thighs, felt stiff as I followed Fletcher across the grass pitch and into the labyrinth of the stands.
He maneuvered expertly through the wooden bleachers until we passed into a hidden area I had never been to before. I was starting to wonder how vast the stadium would be if all the concealed areas were unveiled.
Fletcher opened a door for me and revealed a large training room. It had navy blue mats on the floor, dirty white walls, and scattered athletic equipment like ankle weights and exercise balls.
"This room is used for corrective purposes to beat the bad habits out of players. Stone calls it the Unforgivable Room."
I sniffed and then frowned at the awful stench of sweaty feet that assaulted my nostrils.
"Don't breathe too deep," Fletcher advised me as he picked up a Quaffle and threw it to me. "Now, McCoy, I want you to pass me that like you normally would."
I paused briefly as I thought about what he had said before about my elbow.
"Don't overthink it. I need to see what you're doing wrong so that I can fix it."
I nodded and then tossed him the ball, which he caught easily.
When he caught the ball for the fifth time, Fletcher fiddled with the brim of his cap and then walked over to me. "All right, McCoy. I think I know what the problem is. You aren't using your back muscles enough. You're shoving the ball out there rather than throwing. Your shoulder can't take the whole burden, so your elbow has been carrying a lot of the weight. Does your wrist usually hurt after playing too long?"
"Right. That's because it's had to flick a bit too much to keep the pass on target. That's not the way to throw. You can't get the same speed and force on the ball, and you'll wear out your right arm before you're twenty-five."
I chewed on my dried out lips. So much for my professional Quidditch career.
"So we're going to start fixing that now," Fletcher continued, immune to the Beater's bat he had just hammered into my self-esteem.
If I had thought Tony had gone back to basics, he had nothing on Fletcher. The man critiqued everything I did from how far I kept my knees apart to the slight slouch in my posture.
He guided me through how he wanted me to position my arm and at what point I should be releasing the ball.
Although at first it felt unnatural, when he finally had me practice with a Quaffle, I could feel how much more accurate my throw became.
Nevertheless, after about a hundred throws, my arm hurt like hell; my muscles had not been used this way before.
"Watch the elbow," Fletcher warned me.
Two passes later, he said my wrist had flicked too much.
"Just put the Quaffle down, McCoy."
Defeatedly, I dropped the ball down at my feet. "Sorry."
"No apologizing at the professional level, McCoy," he preached. "You did well, but then you got tired and slipped up into bad habits. Repetition is the key, but I don't want you practicing the wrong way. It's better to do something the right way once than to do a thousand reps repeating the same mistakes. It's going to take some concentration in the beginning. We'll work at it for the next few weeks until the muscle memory gets built up."
I nodded, not quite meeting his eye. "Yes, sir."
"Time to go eat," he barked. "You're no use to me tired and hungry."
Nodding, I followed him to the break room. "And McCoy, we're going to need to get you a new broom. That old Nimbus doesn't make the cut. You'll be outstripped by everyone on the field and their mums."
I clutched my broom defensively to my chest.
"I'll talk to Cooke about special ordering you one. Got to have it hear as quickly as possible if we're going to get you prepared for the first match."
I nodded, and Fletcher dismissed me and walked away briskly, no doubt to go deal with other Quidditch problems.
With a sigh, I walked into the break room. Connor and Jack were already seated at one of the rectangular tables and eating sandwiches.
I flopped down next to Jack and dropped my head onto the table.
"Uh, you okay, Hayley?"
Feeling pathetic, I raised my head again. "I'm fine," I insisted weakly.
"What happened? Did Fletch do something?"
"He took me to the Unforgivable Room."
"Sorry," Connor said from across the table. "Been there. Rather makes you wish they'd just whip out the Cruciatus curse sometimes."
"Yeah, well, apparently I can't throw for shit, and my broom isn't suitable for twelve year old beginners."
"Fletch strips down all the rookies. It's his way of molding you into the kind of player he wants. You're not the first player who needed remediation. I spent ages in there when I first started. Course, I wasn't really supposed to come up from Reserves yet – I was barely out of school – but Catalina Falchek left for the Harpies. I thought Fletch was going to kill me in there. He didn't like my posture on my broom. It was awful."
Connor snorted, his face a bit dreamy as he seemed to recall the memory.
"But it all got sorted out - Connor, don't laugh. .Heck, even the Dominator had a tendency to fly to the left too much when he first started. You just need to bust your ass till you get it right. Don't get too upset," Jack comforted me with a half-smile.
"You have mustard on your nose," I told him.
Jack turned red and frantically began to wipe at his nose.
Connor rolled his eyes and grinned as he offered me a sandwich from a large platter.
My stomach growled at the thought of food. It was nearly noon now, and the breakfast I had eaten before dawn seemed like ages ago. I picked up a ham and cheese sandwiched and then bit into it eagerly.
"One of the Puddlemere perks," Jack supplied as he tossed me a bag of chips. "It's pretty tasty, too. We have to eat in shifts because Fletch would freak out if practice time became idle time, but it's free."
I nodded, and as I chewed at a slower rate, I observed just how delicious the bread was.
I ate more than I spoke, content to respond to their occasional friendly questions and to listen in on the effortless back-and-forth between Connor and Jack. They discussed Connor's progress with the Mimbulus Mimbletonia he was growing (evidently, he was a bit of a herbologist aficionado) and the latest demo Jack's band was working on (Jack's apparently played the piano since he was seven when his mum forced him to take lessons from Madam Mousa).
Though, mostly, they just ate Bertie Bott's Every Flavor Beans. Jack explained that they had been eating them for ages, forcing the other to swallow the more disgusting flavor. Connor swore that he had it the worst with wet dog, but I had to agree with Jack that nothing seemed fouler than a dungbomb flavored bean.
Throughout the course of our half-hour lunch, I sampled beans that tasted like strawberry, chili, chickpea, paper, deviled egg, and sand.
I even finished the whole of a shady-looking black one that turned out to be lava. After chugging four glasses of water as a result, Connor and Jack applauded me.
We headed back to the pitch, and I felt the contents of my stomach churn as Fletcher made us run the circle drill again. The sun was directly overhead of us, and the scorching heat combined with strenuous exercise was making me feel a tad woozy. I was extremely grateful when Fletcher called the team together to have us go lift weights.
The weight room was yet another concealed location within the pitch. There was more iron and machinery than free wall space. Every which way, free weights were levitating in the air. It had bench press bars that could spot someone all on their own and leg press machines that automatically added more weight every time you completed a repetition cycle.
The room was nearly as hot as it had been outside.
When we got inside, Bryce Stone immediately turned on some Weird Sisters music, and my fellow players began silently doing repetitions, nodding along to the music.
I primarily worked my arms and improved my cardio by jumping rope. While I was doing bicep curls, the heavy sound of bass filled the room, and the players all joined in singing along to "Beat It Black (Bludger Bomb)" as they continued their exercising. I almost dropped the weights I had been holding when I first heard. Bryce's screeching clashed horribly along with Bridget's warbling, but, beside me, Jack, his ears going slightly pink when I turned to observe him, had a very pleasant voice.
Des was dancing beside Connor, who was rather an awful dancer.
Looking around incredulously at the scene before me, I caught Oliver's eye; he was the only other person who was not singing. Oliver rolled his eyes and then continued with his bicep curls, a look of deep concentration on his face.
At around three in the afternoon once weight training had ended and Tony had guided my fellow Chasers and me through rounds of shooting techniques, I was dead tired. I knew playing professionally was going to be a challenge, but I had never expected the everyday training to be so physically exhausting. Even my fingers were sore from gripping my Nimbus tightly to ensure I would not fall off it from fatigue.
Before the final run, which thankfully had only been two kilometers and not six, Fletcher had us play a brief scrimmage. I narrowly avoided a few Bludgers and even scored against Oliver.
He was easily the best Keeper I had ever faced – steady and calculating, yet with great instincts. It took me five tries, but I finally got it past him when I feinted right, threw it towards the center hoop and curved it so that it actually went into the hoop on the left.
Oliver had seemed torn between giddiness at my chasing skills and anger that he had failed to block them. That suited me just fine.
Currently, I was shimmying into a pair of dark jean trousers, which I had paired with a plain white t-shirt. My hair was still wet from my shower so I pulled it back into a high ponytail. Normally, I would have magically dried it with my wand, but the wetness against the back of my felt pleasant after sweating in the heat for so long.
Des, who had also showered and changed into a short green skirt, which appeared to be made out of dragon hide, and a black tank top, nodded to me when I entered the common area of the locker room.
We were going out to a Muggle pub tonight. Richard Cooke said, when he dropped by at the end of practice, that he thought it was very important for me to bond with the whole team outside of required times and suggested we all go out for a bit of team building fun. He also let slip that he would not mind if we mentioned some of our sponsors to any reporters we might run into.
However, after heated protests from both Oliver and Fletcher, Cooke agreed that we were better off staying inconspicuous. Evidently, both Captain and Coach felt that since I already had anonymity, they should exploit that to keep my identity secret before the first match with the Falcons.
"This way, none of the other teams will be able to train properly. It's a huge strategic advantage," Oliver had explained excitedly with a manic glint in his eye that appeared when he was discussing strategy, which, I was learning, was quite often.
Des continued staring into a reflective plaque on the wall as she smudged her recently applied eyeliner with her pinky finger. "You good to go?"
"Yeah," I said as I reached down to retie my shoe.
"Good," said Des, ruffling a bruised and bloody hand through her damp hair, as she shoved a few things into her rather messy locker before slamming it shut. "Let's get a move on before – oh, hey, Bridget," she called, her voice dropping to a grumble.
Bridget did not seem to notice Des's disappointment because she was smiling widely as she tied the straps of her baby blue halter top behind her neck. "Hello, girls! Aren't you excited? I've never been to Muggle pub before! Do you really think they pay with paper? How barbaric!" She twittered out a small laugh and let down her hair, which fell down into impossibly long and thick curls over her petite shoulders. She prattled on a bit before eying me outfit with a frown. "Oh, Hayley, pet, did you need more time to get ready?"
I plastered a grin onto my face. "No, Bridget, it's okay."
"Are you sure? The boys won't mind if we keep them waiting just a minute longer." Her voice sounded genuinely kind.
Des must have noticed that I was biting my tongue so fiercely that I drew a bit of blood so she stepped in and ushered us all out of the girls' locker room.
Midway into my third pint of beer, I was feeling much more accepting of Bridget. In fact, I had affection for all of my new teammates. The Muggle bar, The Rusty Kettle, was a bit of a dive, really. It smelled like moldy peanuts and cigarette smoke, but it had alcohol so it was better than nothing.
"It's just so bloody amazing," I sighed into my glass mug. Beer was not my preferred drink, but Bryce said the alcohol was on Puddlemere so I drank what was given to me.
"What is?" Des asked as she turned on her bar stool to face me.
"Being paid to play Quidditch," I answered her, lowering a voice a bit to keep the Muggle bartender and couple sitting a few places away from us from overhearing. "It's so bloody amazing."
Des snickered into her drink. "You mentioned that already, Hayley."
"Then it must be true."
"Maybe you've had enough to drink."
I shook my head, and my ponytail whipped around my face. "Nope. I'm fine. I'm a McCoy. Three brothers, I've got, and all of us can hold our liquor." I sat up a tad straighter. "Really, I'm fine. It's my love of Quidditch more than alcohol that makes me loopy."
"You sound just like –"
"Ladies!" greeted Bryce, beer in hand, as he sauntered over to us with a wide leer on his face. "What are you still doing at the bar? C'mon! We're playing in the back! Evidently, Muggles have this game where they throw these pointy fang things at a circle. I'm up by twenty points!"
"Life is not a constant competition, Bryce," Des told him. "Besides, Bridge is fulfilling in as resident vela mascot. Give us a moment's peace, yeah?"
I looked over my shoulder to see where Connor, Jack, and Oliver were throwing darts. Sure enough, Bridget was clapping loudly and laughing at something or other. I frowned at the sight of her before turning back to see Bryce still attempting to win Des over.
"C'mon, love," he urged. "I'll even buy you another round. That's got to win a bloke something, right?"
"Drinks are on Puddlemere tonight, remember?" Des reminded him coolly as she turned her back to him.
Bryce tugged at his wavy brown hair and sighed. "Look, Des, about what happened earlier…I didn't mean – it just slipped out. Give me a break, okay?" He paused to reach out and grab her hand. "I'm really trying here."
I quickly diverted my gaze and pretended I was not sitting mere centimeters away from Des as she leaned over to whisper something back to him very quietly into his ear. Once about a minute had passed, Bryce, looking a bit forlorn, left and Des's shoulders slouched. "Barkeep!" she called. "Hi, yes, two tequila shots for us over here."
"Okay, go ahead," she said to me dryly when she noticed my curious gaze. "No, wait, hold on." Des grabbed the small glass offered to her and threw it back. "Okay, now."
"You and Bryce?" I brought up in as casual of a tone as I could muster given the circumstances.
Des sighed, her blue eyes rolling dramatically. "Yeah, I know. Bloody genius I am. They always tell you not to throw your Quaffle throw the company hoop. Guess I messed up big time."
"So, you guys are fighting, then. That's okay, couples fight all the time. My brother Brendan and his fiancée are always having a row."
"We're not a couple," Des corrected me suddenly.
"Oh? You're not? I just assumed – but – "
"We used to be a thing – or whatever. At first, it was just sex. Something about him gets me all riled up, you know?"
A few days ago, my answer to that would have been no. Today, however, I was forced to nod my head in concurrence.
"But there were times when he wasn't being a huge prat, and I wasn't acting like a bitch when it was really nice. I thought that maybe I'd even…anyway. It ended a few months ago."
I fiddled with my empty beer mug uneasily. "Uh…what happened?" I asked finally.
"Found him cheating on me with some cheap reporter. They only snogged, but his face was covered in her ugly pink lipstick. Says that he was sick of being my dirty little secret, as if everyone on the team didn't know what was going on."
"I'm so sorry, Des," I told her.
She threw back the second shot, meant for me. "S'okay. I'm over it, anyway. Romance is for twats and people who read Gilderoy Lockhart books. It was kind of my fault, as it was. He told me how he really felt about me, and I shut him down. We're just back to being friends now – teammates. Today, he just had to go and say he -– isn't it the most annoying thing when someone's nice to you? It really pisses me off. I just want to punch him in the bloody nose." She slammed her bruised fist into her palm.
I glanced back over at where the boys were throwing darts. Jack saw me almost immediately, smiled, and waved in my direction. I waved back feebly and then focused my gaze on Oliver's turned back. Bridget's arm was slung around his waist.
"Better off. Fletch hates when anyone from the team gets involved. He only puts up with Oliver and Bridget cause, well, Cooke would probably sack him. Mind you, I think Wood would get a sense of humor before he would let a romance get in the way of playing."
Trying very hard not to seem too interested in front of Des, whom I knew still had not quite approved of me, I sipped my beer slowly before asking, "So how did they end up together anyway?"
"Well, Bridget came on after Saltrina Heyman got hurt."
Remembering the influx of news when the Puddlemere Seeker collided into the goal post practicing on her own, I nodded grimly.
"So that was about two years ago? Didn't really know Heyman that well. I had just moved up from Reserves then. I was a bit older than most because I had taken some time off to visit Egypt. Anyway," said Des pausing to throw back a new round of shots. "Bridget came and was the first girl to ever really pursue Wood. 'Course, it's not as though he didn't get attention, but the bloke is as thick as it gets when it comes to girls. I think he honestly thought witches wanted to know about his strategy – prat. But Bridget must have gotten through his thick skull and, well, I suppose his hormones finally kicked in. Never seen a bloke more likely to snog a Quaffle till I met him. Bridget mellows him out lads, though. Must be the sex," she concluded frankly with a sarcastic laugh.
Des cracked a few disparaging jokes, but they fell to deaf ears because my mind was reeling from this information. Horrible images of Bridget and Oliver started forming in my mind. I felt as though I had just been kicked in the stomach.
"– if that's your type, I suppose. I've never been one for blokes who wear kilts, though, course, he swears he doesn't have one." She paused then and looked at me expectantly.
Forcing the image of them snogging from my mind, I laughed weakly and far too late.
Des did not seem to mind, though, because she was gazing at the back of the room. "I really do hate him," she told me.
I did not know if it was the alcohol, the stress of the day, the lateness of the hour, or the newfound camaraderie between us, but I admitted in a pitiful voice, "I think I fancy Oliver."
Des pivoted sharply and examined me with hard eyes before she turned towards the bar.
"Oi! Barkeep! Yeah! Two more tequila shots for me and my friend here. This time, H, I'll actually let you drink yours."
A/N: Molly here. One week, lovelies. I'm going to need a box of tissues...or seven. Thanks for reading. Let me know how you're enjoying SAAS because reviews are the perfect antidote to summer days with torrential downpours and minimum wage jobs.
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