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Off the Rails by water_lily43175
Chapter 15 : fifteen
 
Rating: MatureChapter Reviews: 5


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A frantic call from Brigid woke me early on Monday morning.

“England want you!” she said excitedly.

I frowned, still half-asleep.

“What?”

“They’ve named a twenty-one person squad for training this week. They want to get a good look at all the World Cup possibilities. You’re in it. So’s Roxanne, actually, but I think she’s more of a future prospect than a current one. Meet at the England base in an hour.”

Excitement began to build up inside me.

“Where’s that?” I tried to sound casual.

“They’re using the World Cup stadium. You know, the one they built near us?”

By ‘us’ Brigid meant the Falcons’ training ground. Though agents were meant to be unbiased, she was of course a die-hard Falcons fan.

“Cato and Cleo have been called up too, naturally. Meet them at our ground in about half an hour – they’re picking up some stuff from their lockers – then you can Apparate to the stadium with them.”

“Cool!” I said, mentally berating myself for using such a word even as I said it. “Have ... have you rung Roxie yet?”

“No, I’m doing that next. James, just remember-”

“Yeah?”

“Look, this is huge for you, and I don’t want to burst your bubble-” She sounded hesitant. “And you do have a massive opportunity here to show what you can do ... but, this is a twenty-one person squad. That’s three times as many people as are needed for a team. They’ve called up nine Chasers; they only need four for the World Cup. This is great, and I’m really chuffed for you ... but I don’t want you getting your hopes up too early just to be disappointed.”

I grinned.

“Don’t worry, Brie,” I said. “I know that.”

I also knew – though I didn’t tell her – that now I was in the England fold, even if it was just a training squad, I wasn’t going to let anyone drop me from it. I was going to make that World Cup squad if it killed me.

Though not quite literally, of course.

***

I knew most of the twenty-one person squad already, as I’d played against them in the League. Some of them had been at Hogwarts when I’d been there, so I’d also played with or against several of them in the Quidditch Cup too. Cato and Cleo had been a couple of years above me and had played against me for Slytherin.

I was very familiar with a few members of the squad. Michael Wood had been Gryffindor’s Keeper and Captain during my first three years at Hogwarts and he now filled the same positions on the English team. His twin sister Emily had been a Chaser on the team and for my first two years, she Ryan and I had made for a formidable trio. I’d learnt a lot from her. While they now both played for Puddlemere United – one of the Falcons’ biggest rivals – the Gryffindor spirit outdid the League rivalry, and even now, they always had a friendly smile or a word of advice for me whenever we played each other.

Unfortunately, Gryffindor spirit didn’t always linger. Jeremiah McLaggen was, admittedly, an incredibly talented and versatile player. He’d been Gryffindor’s Seeker for four years and had then switched to Keeper for his last year, as none of the people trying out had been good enough to join the team. Michael’s shoes had been rather large ones to fill. It had been Ryan’s first season as captain and he’d been preparing himself to plead with Professor McGonagall to bend the rule against First Years playing, so that Hugo could get on the team. McLaggen, however, had been frustrated by the lack of competency and ordered the rejected Keepers to go and sit in the stands, then demanded that Roxanne, who’d replaced Emily as Chaser, and I try to score as many goals as possible against him. He had performed so remarkably that Ryan promptly switched him to Keeper.

Of course, Ryan had then had to call Seeker tryouts. Luckily, these created less of a problem as Albus had easily outflown all competition, and had even taken McLaggen by surprise with his talent.

But McLaggen wasn’t in the England squad as a Seeker, or even as a Keeper. He had been signed by the Tornados straight out of school as a Seeker, but had been forced to fill in as a Chaser a couple of seasons ago when injuries had struck and left them short. He had done such a sickeningly good job that he made the England squad a season later, in that position. This ability to position-switch made him unpopular amongst most Chasers, Seekers and Keepers – nobody should be able to slot into so many positions so easily at House level, let alone League level. Beaters alone had little problem with him and proclaimed, as they were wont to do, that their role was so specialist that no ‘bit-part’ player could possibly dream of performing it to such a high standard.

Secretly, several of us within the League were running a sweepstake on when McLaggen would attempt to play Beater. I was still in the running, though I only had a few months left. Emily’s guess had been and gone a good two seasons previously.

Naturally, with such talent in spades, McLaggen had the ego to go with it. Dad had once compared him to his father, who had played on the same team as him and Mum at Hogwarts, commenting that Jeremiah was “cut from the same cloth”. He hadn’t explained why he’d said this, however, claiming that he hadn’t wanted to cloud my judgement of him.

Luckily for me, Uncle Ron had delighted in telling me the entire story of Cormac McLaggen’s Quidditch woes, and I had delighted in listening.

McLaggen had never liked me. This wasn’t a surprise. He’d commented when I’d first made the Gryffindor team that I had only done so based on who my parents were. I’d thoroughly silenced him when retorting that he clearly hadn’t made the team based on his father’s prowess, and a beautiful rivalry blossomed. Even though we were now both in our twenties, our mutual animosity hadn’t waned, especially as he played for the Tornados, who resented all Falcons players for taking their mantle as the best domestic side in recent years.

This team rivalry meant that there was currently a fair bit of tension amongst the squad. Seven of the thirteen teams in the League were English. The Welsh, Irish and Scottish teams all refused to field English players, as they preferred to nurture home-grown talent. As each nation only boasted two League teams, this was fair enough, but it meant that there were only seven teams for the England management to pick their players from. As the three most successful teams in the League, the Falcons, the Tornados and Puddlemere provided most players, which meant there was a nasty atmosphere in the air. The coach, Demelza Robins, tried to remedy this from the start by splitting us up by position and sending us all off to “bond with each other”.

“Does she really think that a few minutes of talking will make us best friends with McLaggen?” Roxanne hissed to me, very quietly, as Demelza’s younger sister, Tamsin had also been one of the Chasers chosen for the twenty-one player squad. With twenty years of professional Quidditch experience behind her, she was the oldest member of the squad and usually played for the Tornados.

 Roxanne was already fuming, as McLaggen took the first opportunity to make a snarky comment about her lack of first team game time with the Falcons. This was already a sore topic for her, and I knew Brigid was beginning to worry that she would opt to leave the team to gain more game time elsewhere.

“It might have a better chance of working if we weren’t all heading back to our clubs at the end of the week to prepare for our first match of the season,” I said. “And we’re playing the Tornados. That’s the last thing we need.”

“Don’t let anybody see just how good you are,” Sinead had warned the four of us before we’d left the Falcon’s training ground that morning. “Especially the Tornados or Puddlemere; we’re playing them both within the next few weeks and we don’t need them picking up on our tactics, or more importantly our weaknesses. Do enough, but don’t do too much. Remember, the selectors will be watching our matches all season; you’ll have ample time to impress. And Keira’s the England Beater coach now; she’ll put in a good word for you all.”

But even Keira was getting frustatrated.

“None of my Beaters will talk to each other,” she moaned quietly to me after the ‘bonding session’ was over. “I’ve got two Falcons, two Tornados, a Wasp and a United, and you couldn’t create more tension unless you locked them in a room with the Lynch brothers. And apart from Cato and Cleo, none of them really like the idea of being coached by a Falcon, partly because of the rivalry and partly because they they don’t want me to learn all their tricks. I swear it was never this bad when I played for England!”

Emily Wood didn’t like the idea of Keira coaching the Beaters either, though for different reasons.

“Who on earth decided it was a good idea to couple the Bagman twins with a Broadmoor?” She shuddered. “I hope I’m not picked for Puddlemere when we play you guys; the thought of facing the Bagmans after Broadmoor’s showed them all she knows is a terrifying one. All I can say is I’m glad they’re all English. If I knew I had to face them in the World Cup, I wouldn’t get any sleep at night.”

“Don’t worry, there’s still the Lynch brothers to worry about,” I pointed out.

She grinned wryly.

“Yes, well, I think you need to fear them more than most, eh, Potter?” She ruffled my hair in the way she used to do when we played together for Gryffindor – except I had been shorter than her back then, and now I towered over her. “I’ve got to say, I’m pleased to see you in the fold. I knew it was only a matter of time before England came calling for you. It’s good to see Roxie’s on their minds too, though she’s another couple of seasons away, I think. But you ... you’ve got a good chance of making the summer team.”

“I’ve got some good people to out-do though,” I reminded her. “And besides, once people have gotten into the team, it’s hard to dislodge them. People will only get dropped if they make mistakes, you know that.”

“Very true, but look at it from this point of view. Tamsin is a fantastic Chaser. What she’s achieved is incredible, and the fact that she’s still playing for England at her age, especially when most of her contemporaries – you’ve got a few of them at the Falcons: Broadmoor; Horton; Cobb; Keitch – have been out of the international scene for a few years, says a lot about what she can offer. But she’s not going to be around for much longer. If she plays in this World Cup, then it will probably be her last involvement with England. So does Demelza roll with that, let Tamsin have her swan song, given that she’s still so good ... or does she say, ‘let’s promote youth over experience in this tournament’ and pick someone like, say, you?”

“I’m not going to get in instead of Tamsin,” I snorted. “She’s the coach’s sister-”

“Demelza doesn’t do favouritism,” Emily pointed out. “She knows when it is and when it isn’t right to pick her-”

“Yes, but I still think she’s more likely to pick her for her last World Cup than a non-related coach would be.”

Emily shrugged.

“If she’s picked, then I won’t be too unhappy,” she said. “She’s a talent and I enjoy playing alongside her. All I’m saying is that you have a chance. I mean, you could dislodge McLaggen; you’re a better Chaser than him and Merlin knows I can’t stand the bloke.”

I grinned, remembering some of the run-ins she’d had with him on the Hogwarts Quidditch pitch.

“And I think Demelza thinks his ego could do with a dressing down. You could easily replace him.”

“But he’s versatile,” I reasoned. “And it’s not just that he can play Seeker and Keeper; he’s more than capable at both. Heck, Seeker’s his position of choice. There’s no way that Robins won’t want him in the squad.”

“The squad, yes, but she’ll pick four Chasers. That still leaves two spots-”

“Oh, you’ll get in no problem, don’t be daft,” I said, rolling my eyes.

“I don’t know,” she said. “Things can change very quickly in sport. And you’re damn good. The most exciting thing to see is how far you’ve come since we were at Hogwarts, and how much potential you still have. You’re by no means the finished article, and as a United player that scares me, frankly. You’ve clearly learned a lot from Moran, Horton and Cobb at Falmouth.” She paused. “Mike and I told Dad he should be looking at you, when you were in your last year at school. Dad liked what he saw, from what I gathered. Unfortunately, your pal Murphy jumped in there first.”

“Brie said her mum was interested in signing me up, and Ryan was already there. It was a no-brainer.” I shrugged. “Was your dad really interested, though? I had no idea...”

Emily’s father Oliver was the Puddlemere coach. He’d played at Hogwarts with Dad, apparently, before going on to be Puddlemere’s Keeper for years. His son had definitely followed in his footsteps.

“Oh, yeah. He sent a scout to all your matches in your last year. He didn’t want to approach you too soon though. And then the Falcons snapped you up first. It was definitely the right move for you, though. I think you’ve done better there than you would have at Puddlemere, given the mentors you’ve had.”

I nodded in agreement. I’d had fine teachers in Sinead, Julia and Laura, and to some extent, Della.

“So, you see? You’ve got more than enough chance of getting into the World Cup squad.”

I nodded again, watching as Demelza released twenty Snitches into the stadium and ordered her three Seekers to catch as many as possible.

What a stadium it was, too. Mum, Dad and my uncles all told stories about the last time the World Cup had been held in Britain, and they’d all described the stadium. This was built to the same design, but nothing they’d said had quite prepared me for the moment when I had actually entered it.

Due to the Statute of Secrecy, the teams in the League couldn’t each have a huge stadium to play at. The logistics were near impossible. Instead, we all played at various deserted moors, with temporary stands erected for every match. At the Falcons we had a small building at Bodmin Moor, where we played our home games, which housed our changing rooms and other facilities, and of course we had a pitch marked out and both sets of hoops erected, but everything was very basic. The World Cup stadium, however, was anything but basic. It was by far and away the biggest magical structure I’d ever seen – aside from Hogwarts, of course.

When I finally threw my leg over my broom and kicked off from the ground, later that day, the rush of excitement I felt was even greater than I usually got when I felt the wind hit my face and ruffle my hair. There was something about this stadium, something incredible, and it was only now, now I was flying inside it, that the reality of being in the extended England World Cup squad hit. Despite Brigid’s warning earlier that day, as I flew laps round the stadium to warm up, I envisaged it full of spectators, all here to watch the final, all adorned in the England colours, chanting my name...

I grinned to myself as the vision played out.

Not that I would ever  tell a soul what I’d just imagined.

***

I did, however, tell Aunt Audrey everything else about the training squad on Friday afternoon when I paid her a long-overdue visit.

“I’m proud of you, Jimmy,” she said, squeezing my hand excitedly. “I told you that you were in the running, didn’t I? I told you right from the start too; if you worked hard enough, you’d reap the rewards. And you’ve certainly worked hard for this. Just don’t forget your poor Aunt Audrey when you’re travelling the world playing the beautiful game.”

I laughed.

“Don’t worry, I won’t forget my first fan.” I grinned. “Besides, your shortbread is far too nice.”

“Have another piece.” She gestured towards the shortbread, which was no longer stacked as high as it had been when I’d turned up. “Unless they’ve gotten you on some crackpot diet in preparation for the World Cup.”

 “I’m not that special yet.” I took the largest piece. “Don’t go telling everyone your nephew’s playing in the World Cup. I’ve still got to survive the chop, remember. I wouldn’t want you to get your hopes up.”

She returned the smile.

“Don’t worry, I’m the champion of realism.” She paused. “You won’t get your hopes up too much, will you? You need to be prepared for all eventualities. And while you need to tell yourself you can play for England at the Cup, that you are good enough, you shouldn’t tell yourself that you should and will be playing there. Not just yet. There’s still a lot of hard work to do before you can let yourself relax.”

“I know. Trust me, I won’t let myself get carried away. I’ve seen the talent I need to overtake, I’m not about to take this all for granted.”

“You’ve got a sensible head on your shoulders, boy. Your parents have raised you well.”

“That, or I have an agent who likes to bring me back down to earth with a bump at every opportunity,” I said with a grin. Brigid had indeed been telling me exactly the same as Aunt Audrey all week.

“She knows the game better than most,” Aunt Audrey agreed. “Anyway, enough of the Quidditch talk. What’s happening with this Muggle girl you were seeing?”

I frowned.

“How did you know about that?”

“Lucy, of course. She said a few weeks back that you’d gotten quite friendly with some Muggle. She’s not had so much to say on the matter recently, though. Have you moved on again?”

“No ... it’s difficult.” I shifted uneasily in my seat. “She, um ... she knows. About us. About magic.”

Aunt Audrey’s eyes widened.

“You told her?”

“She found out,” I said uneasily. “It’s okay, she’s cool with it.” She is now, at any rate. “It’s just ... made things awkward in a way. I mean, she doesn’t want some serious relationship, she’s looking for fun like I am, but ... well, I’ve kind of got to stay acquaintances with her now, haven’t I? And things haven’t always ended rosy with me and girls...”

“Cassie Lynch comes to mind,” she mused. “Have you seen her much lately, then? Your Muggle, that is, not Lynch. I don’t even know this girl’s name...”

“Carlotta,” I supplied. “Her mum’s Spanish. I don’t actually know her surname; it’s not the kind of thing you ask about, is it? But no, I’ve not seen her since last weekend, when I explained the whole magic thing to her. I’ve talked to her; she rang and asked if I wanted a night out, but I said I couldn’t, cause I’ve been doing this training. I might see her tomorrow though. I think she still has loads of questions to ask about magic. I was wondering, actually...” I leaned forwards, propping my elbows on the kitchen table. “How do all these Muggle repelling wards work?”

“Which ones? There are a few that work differently.”

“The ones round our Quidditch pitch.”

“The Falcons?” I nodded. “Well, that makes Muggles approaching it suddenly remember an appointment they’re late for and dash off for it. There are others, of course; the one at Hogwarts causes Muggles to see a ruin, not the castle, and they can’t see the Leaky Cauldron at all.”

“But Muggles can overcome them?” I asked. I knew this was true, as Maddie and Kit had been to several Falcons matches. I was interested in the theory behind it, however.

“Well, yes ... Hermione would be a better person to ask this than me, you know.”

“Yeah, but that would mean telling her that Carlotta’s found out about magic, and I didn’t fancy that. Not without you and Aunt Angelina on side first.”

Aunt Audrey raised an eyebrow.

“Now I see what you’re playing at,” she said. “So, you want to take Carlotta to a game, do you?”

“Maybe.” I shrugged my shoulders. “She seemed interested...”

“Well, the important thing to remember is that most Muggles don’t know that these wards even exist. As a result, they don’t know they can fight them. That’s why they work; if a Muggle suddenly remembers a dentist’s appointment while in the middle of a moor, they’re not going to question why they remember it because they have no reason to. But if a Muggle knows there’s something to fight, then they can overwhelm it. It’s by no means easy, though. Just knowing about the wards isn’t enough; a Muggle has to really understand magic, to believe that it’s genuine and always has been. That’s why the wards don’t work on Squibs like Lily; she doesn’t have magic but she sure as hell knows it exists. By all accounts she had some serious trouble when she first took Maddie and Kit to a match; she says she’s never known anyone so keen to visit the dentist as Kit was, and Maddie nearly punched her lights out, she was so anxious to get to a hockey match that didn’t exist. But they managed in the end.” She paused. “Does that help?”

I nodded gratefully.

“Thanks.”

“Now, the next question is, how the hell are you going to explain to your parents that you let a Muggle find out about magic?” Aunt Audrey’s tone of voice was now very stern.

I licked my lips hesitantly, finding some sugar and shortbread crumbs as I did so.

“I haven’t quite worked that one out yet,” I said. “But I’m thinking of turning up at my match with Carlotta, letting Brie look after her and then bolting to the changing rooms and letting them just ... find out.”

She raised an eyebrow, looking sceptical.

“If you do it that way,” she said, “and you harbour any ambitions of playing for England someday, then I would definitely advise you to include running in the game plan.”


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