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Off the Rails by water_lily43175
Chapter 26 : twenty-six
 
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I awoke ridiculously early Monday, the morning of the squad announcements. I didn’t even try to get back to sleep; I knew it would be fruitless. Instead, I got out of bed, and tuned into the Quidditch News channel on the television, waiting for news of the squads to filter through.

Because of the time difference, the Australia and New Zealand squads had been announced overnight, as had Samoa’s. The Samoans were ranked outside the top thirty-two teams in the world but had made it into the main draw along with four other such teams, as some big names including Transylvania and Belgium had missed out on qualification. They weren’t expected to shock anyone, but it would certainly be a big experience for them, as they’d never gotten this far before.

The African squads were the next to trickle through; Egypt, Ethiopia, Uganda, Morocco, Tanzania, South Africa and Nigeria. Then the Russians, the Georgians and the Turks. The first point of real interest was the Bulgarian squad. I grinned as the name ‘Krum’ appeared. We’d all been right; Stefan hadn’t needed to worry about a thing. It looked a strong squad; it was clear to see why they were ranked top in the world.

The nerves began to build as more European squads were announced. Norway, then Poland. Italy. Luxembourg. Finally Germany’s squad. Two Brands, one of whom had the letters ‘VC’ next to her name.

“Nice one, Della,” I said quietly.

And still, my phone didn’t ring.

Ireland’s squad was next. It was released before France’s, Scotland’s and Wales’ as well as England’s, as it had been decided nearly a week ago. The names were truly terrifying. Connolly, Kiely, both Lynches, Murphy, O’Hare, O’Sullivan, Quigley ... the list went on and on. Regardless of whether or not I made England’s squad, I hoped against hope we wouldn’t come up against Ireland at any stage in the tournament. Their squad was probably the second strongest of those named so far – but then, they were ranked fourth in the world, one spot above England, and the second and third best, Uruguay and Peru, hadn’t been named yet.

The thought filled me with dread; there was surely no chance of avoiding all four teams above us in the world rankings at some stage in the tournament? We’d have to avoid them in the quarter-finals and hope that results there went our way so as to avoid them if we made the semi-finals. That didn’t seem like a likely outcome. Of course, it was always possible that we could lose our quarter-final – or not even make it out of our group. That would ensure that we didn’t face any of those four teams...

But I didn’t like thinking about that. I knew England’s smallest hopes were of making the quarter-finals. Demelza would be disappointed not to make the semis. Making the final would be incredible – and winning the Cup was just unthinkable. Four years ago I’d watched from the sidelines as England crashed out at the group stages. It had happened once too often and the Department of Magical Games and Sports had called for a complete overhaul; out went the previous coaching team, and in came Demelza. Many of the players were also dropped; only the Woods and Tamsin survived.

It had been then, at seventeen and about to start my Seventh Year at Hogwarts, that I truly realised what I wanted to do with my life. I wanted to make that squad. I knew that I could play better than most of those who let us down in that World Cup. I set myself a lofty aim; to play for England at the next World Cup. I would play with far more pride and honour than those who’d worn the robes before me and I’d be able to look in the mirror and be proud of the person looking back at me.

That was my aim, and I hadn’t stopped striving for it. But it was possible that it had already passed me by.

Next up was an announcement from Wales – they were delaying their squad announcement by six hours. Clearly they hadn’t made their decision yet. Was this why I’d heard nothing, too? Were England also deliberating still?

And then, my phone rang. I jumped a mile as it pealed, and dived across the sofa to pick it up, freezing at the last moment.

Did this mean that I was in? Or did Demelza ring those who hadn’t made it, to let them down gently? After all, she surely should have announced the squad to the public by now; surely she’d have let the full eleven know by now?

Of course, it was possible that it wasn’t even Demelza ringing me. If it wasn’t, then whoever it was was going to get it in the neck for getting me so worked up.

But sure enough, it was Demelza Robins’ smooth voice which greeted me as I answered the phone.

“Morning, James, it’s Demelza. I hope I haven’t woken you up?”

“No, I was already awake,” I replied, beginning to feel nauseous.

“Nervous?” She sounded amused.

“A little.”

“Well, you don’t need to be. You’ve made the squad.”

It took a moment for the words to sink in.

“I – you’re joking.”

“Do you want me to be joking?”

“No!” I said quickly. “I just ... I’m in? I’m really in?”

She laughed.

“Yes, James, you’re in. So long as you want to be, of course-”

“Of course I do!” I said hurriedly. “It’s just ... it’s a bit of ... well, not a shock exactly, but...”

“It’s what you were hoping for, but never dared to dream about?” she suggested. “I know the feeling. But you should have had more faith in yourself! You’ve been playing fantastically all season for the Falcons, and you especially impressed Tamsin against the Pride. Of course, we’ll need to work on your nerves, see if we can harness them a bit because on the international stage you’ll be punished badly for even the slightest slip...”

I tuned out of what she was saying and stared across the room, as the news finally sank in.

I was in the England squad.

My nerves were dissipating, to be replaced by complete and utter ecstasy. I could almost envisage my name in black on the news channel, after McLaggen’s and before Tamsin’s ... ‘James Potter, Falmouth Falcons’...

“...so you’ll need to come to the Ministry to do all the formal bits,” Demelza was saying. “Level Seven, of course. Come as soon as you can, so we can get it all sorted and out of the way. I need to go; I need to announce you all to the press. I’m running a bit late, as you might have gathered! Sorry to have kept you hanging, but hopefully it was all worth it in the end. So I’ll see you at the Ministry in a few minutes?”

“I’ll be there straight away!” I said eagerly.

“I look forward to seeing you.”

I put the phone down, and jumped to my feet, ready to Disapparate. Then I looked down, and halted.

Maybe not straight away. Getting dressed first might be a good idea.

***

Ten minutes later, I was at the Ministry, making my way to Level Seven, where the Department of Magical Games and Sports was located. I bumped into Mum in the Atrium. For a moment, she seemed surprised to see me, but her shock turned to joy as she twigged why I was there. I assumed Demelza hadn’t yet announced the squad, and Mum was hovering around waiting for the moment she did.

“Are you in?” she whispered, evidently wanting to make sure.

I didn’t need to answer her; my grin said it all. She let out a quiet squeal, and pulled me into a tight hug.

“Oh, well done baby! I told you that you’d make it! Oh, I’m so proud of you...” She pulled away, and planted a quick kiss on my forehead. “You should go, you need to get all your paperwork sorted, you’ll need to register with the Ministry as an England player. Oh, just think, my little boy, playing for England!” She beamed, and her eyes welled with tears. “Make sure you pop up to see your father once you’ve done all the formalities; he’ll want to know the good news.”

“I doubt that,” I said dully.

A stern look replaced the happy one.

“James, humour me, just for today, and talk to your father...”

“Okay, okay, I’ll go,” I said, feeling irritated that she’d brought him up, that the mention of him had killed my happiness. “See you later, Mum. Don’t gush about me too much in your report.”

My mood brightened again once I reached Level Seven, and Rose, who worked here and had clearly been lying in wait for me, dashed out of an office on the left and flung her arms around my neck.

“Well done, James!” she said. “You can get me free tickets now...”

“Dream on,” I grinned, ruffling her hair. “Cheers, Rosie.”

She directed me to the office I needed, the administration office for the England Quidditch squad. On the way I passed Ireland’s office – they too were administrated by the British Ministry. The door was ajar, and I could hear Ryan’s voice floating through the doorway. I resisted the temptation to stop here to tell him my news. I didn’t want to disturb their team chat, no matter how informal it was. I’d have time later to talk to him.

Cleo was the first person to spot me when I reached the England office and hovered in the doorway. She looked happy to see me, but not surprised, which suggested she’d already been told I’d made the squad.

“James!” She got to her feet and approached me. “Well done, I knew you’d make it!”

The others looked round on hearing her greeting. They were all there already: Cato, Emily and Michael Wood, Tamsin, McLaggen, Gregory Ellis, Jessica Birch, and Gemma Deans and the fantastically-named Archibald Tromburg, Keeper and Seeker respectively, who played for the Wimbourne Wasps. All of them approached to congratulate me on my inclusion, even McLaggen – though I assumed that was because he felt it would be too obvious if he didn’t; certainly his wasn’t the most convincing of greetings.

“Nice one, mate,” Cato grinned, and slapped my back; I hid a wince. “Good to have some fellow Falcon blood in the camp.”

There was something oddly pleasing about his comment. Players had once had strong loyalties to one club, but this had diminished over the years, with players moving for various reasons, often financial or purely to get games. It was only my third season with the Falcons, but already I felt certain I’d never want to leave. Anyone who wore the team colours and didn’t put in their all for the club, didn’t deserve to wear them in my eyes. Our previous Beaters had been guilty of this very crime, so hearing Cato refer to himself as a Falcon so proudly was a good sign.

The greeting from Tamsin was especially nice.

“Thank you so much,” I said as she approached me last. I was referring to her presence at the Pride match, and the feedback – presumably good –that she had given Demelza.

“Thank you.” She beamed at me. “I was so worried for the first ten minutes or so that I wouldn’t get away with telling Demelza to pick you ... where you pulled that performance from, I have no idea, but I was so happy when you did!”

Coming from one of the best Chasers England had ever seen, this was huge praise, and I could barely hide my smile.

And the moment was topped off when Ryan snuck in to congratulate me.

“Junior!” he cried, practically jumping onto my shoulders in jubilation. “I told you you’d get the call!”

“Get out of our office, Murphy!” Emily said, but she was grinning.

“Ah, lighten up, Wood.” He ruffled her hair. “I hope you’re prepared; Jimmy’s come on leaps and bounds since we all played together for Gryffindor all those years ago.”

“Yeah; he’s your team’s best Chaser now, isn’t he?” She grinned cheekily at him.

“I expect he’ll take your spot for England?” he quipped in return.

“We’ll beat you regardless of who we field. Don’t you go worrying about our selection issues, worry about your own performance, Murph,” she bounced back.

The door opened again, and Demelza finally appeared.

“Morning, guys!” she said, looking round the room at her assembled players. “Congratulations on making the squad – Murphy, what on earth are you doing in here?” she added, doing a double-take as she spotted him.

“Espionage work,” he grinned. “Sorry, I just nipped in to chat to James. I’ll leave you to have your top-secret tactic discussion. This is a good squad you’ve got; we’re all quaking in our boots next door!”

“Is that a genuine comment or are the tactics coming out already?” Demelza said dubiously.

“I’ll let you figure that out,” he said, heading for the door.

“In that case, your squad is looking pretty mediocre,” she retorted, poker-faced.

He grinned, and left the office, shutting the door behind him.

“Bloody menace,” she muttered, shaking her head.  “They’re all the same, those Irish players. Anyway!” She clapped her hands, and looked around at us. “As I was saying, well done on making the squad, all of you, and welcome to James, our newest squad member. You’re all here because you’ve worked hard over the past few years, you’ve played well, and you’ve done yourselves proud. You’re the best that England has, and I’m sure you won’t let the country down.

“But the hard work is by no means over; in fact, it’s barely begun. We won’t be training straight away; I’ll let you have these two weeks off, because I think that’s more valuable right now than putting you in training. I will be calling you in for training during the next break, though, which will be the beginning of June. The Cup starts mid-July so that time will be crucial. And then, as soon as the League ends, it’ll be straight into national training again. I might pull you all out of domestic team training and matches during June, but only if I think we need it. I’m well aware that would deplete four proud English teams of their best players, and I really don’t want to do that.”

This was one of the reasons why Sinead and the other Quidditch coaches liked Demelza so much. Of course, they realised England had to come first, but they tried their hardest to claw back as many club rights as possible. Having someone who saw the importance of the League in charge of international Quidditch certainly helped their case .

“Most of you have played for England before, but few of you have played on a stage as big as the World Cup before. It’s good to have that experience here, obviously, but I don’t pick people purely based on tournament experience. A lot of the time I don’t actually think it’s needed; you’re all good enough to cope with playing at such a high level, or you wouldn’t be here. But the thing you won’t be used to is the media exposure. You may  be household names in Britain by now, but by the end of this tournament, you may well be household names worldwide. People from all over the world will be tuning in; all eyes will be on you. And with that, comes a lot of media attention. A few of you may already be accustomed to this-” Her eyes flickered towards me, and I hid a grimace – “but most of you won’t be. I urge you all to act with responsibility at all times. You are England players, and I will not have you bringing the game into disrepute in any way while representing the country. I don’t want to have to release any of you from the squad, but I will if necessary.”

The mood, which moments before had been jovial, was now very downbeat. Demelza’s warning had unnerved us all – except for Tamsin and the Woods, who were old hands at this now.

“Anyway, enough of all of this doom and gloom!” Demelza clapped her hands together loudly. “That’s me done; all that’s left to do is sort out your immediate media responsibilities. I think your agents will be turning up in a few moments to sort out interviews, otherwise the moment you reach the Atrium you’ll all be accosted by the press. James, if you could just come over here for a moment, we need to register you officially...”

Player registration wasn’t as complicated as it seemed. Perhaps ironically, it was simpler at international level than at domestic level. The reason for this was simple. I was already registered by the Falcons, so all that was required was for this registration to be upped to international level, and it wasn’t actually that important. At domestic level, registration was required so as to prevent teams from playing people they weren’t supposed to. Squads were made up of fourteen players, and teams were only allowed to exceed that if injury concerns or international call-ups prevented a full team from being fielded. This registration included all of my personal details, and generally enabled the Department for Magical Games and Sports to administrate the game with more ease. Because this personal information was already logged, my registration at this level merely meant signing an extra document, extending my eligibility to international level. Normally, Brigid dealt with such documents, but this one was so simplistic I was able to flick through it myself, before adding my signature to the bottom of the parchment.

And then I was an England player.

Of course, I hadn’t played a game for them yet, and I wasn’t sure if I would. But seeing my name on that official document, the ink of my signature still glistening in the light, made it feel so real, for the first time since I’d gotten that call from Demelza.

I nearly jumped a mile when someone snaked their arms round my middle, and I felt their light breath on my cheek.

“Well done, Jim!” Brigid whispered. She planted a quick kiss on my cheek before pulling away. Agents weren’t necessarily expected to be completely removed from their clients – or she wouldn’t have gone on the date with Cato in the first place – but they were expected to be independent from the Quidditch teams. Brigid’s professional relationship with her mother had already irked enough agents; it was better if she didn’t flaunt our friendship in front of them.

Especially given that Cato and Cleo had left one of the agents who managed most of the English squad at the same time they’d left the Wasps and he was there, shooting resentful looks across the room at us, despite being surrounded by his charges. He’d tried to nab me after my first full season, but I’d rejected the offer in a trice.

“Well done, guys.” Brigid smiled at the twins as they joined us. Her smile lingered on Cato for a split second, and I wondered if she really did like him and was just fearful of risking their professional relationship.

“As you’d expect, everyone downstairs wants a piece of you – especially you, James,” she added, slightly awkwardly, as though she felt as awkward as I did about the fact I was undoubtedly top billing with the press, regardless of the others’ Quidditch achievements. “So, we need to share you around. The Prophet get you all first, of course. James, the editor wanted your mum to interview you, but I quashed that one straight off.  So you’re with their Deputy Quidditch Correspondent, Deirdre...”

I winced. Deirdre was a very good journalist – because she knew what questions to ask. Sometimes this was good; she was very knowledgeable about the game. But sometimes these questions were more personal. I’d been interviewed by her once before, and some of her questions had had me squirming in my seat.

“...then Quidditch Weekly want a chat, and Which Broomstick? want to know all about how your Firebolt has helped you get to where you are. Then Witch Weekly want a chat – humour me, James, just this once, and don’t try to argue with me on this one,” she added as I made to object. “I think the Quibbler wouldn’t mind an interview from you too; that would be nice for them, don’t you think? I can’t stick around with you for them, I’m afraid – after you guys I need to see my Scottish players – but I’m sure you’ll get on just fine by yourself, you should be an expert at them by now! You can nip down now, no need to wait up here any longer...”

I left, but reluctantly. Just because I’d done a lot of interviews, didn’t mean I liked them. I’d always relied on Brigid being there with me, to help me out if I wasn’t sure how best to answer a question. Without her, I was concerned I might slip up, especially with the Prophet interview first up.

The Department of Magical Games and Sports was a hive of activity. When arriving, Rose had marshalled me though the corridors, so I’d managed to avoid everybody, but it was impossible to do the same on my way out. I kept my head down as I made my way towards the clunky lifts, not wanting anyone to talk to me. Nevertheless, people still approached me, all congratulating me on my inclusion, which had apparently been a ‘sure thing’. It seemed as though I’d been the least confident about my chances of actually making the squad.

The lift was even worse. I’d managed to find one with a couple of Aurors in it, and they crowded me the moment the doors opened, congratulating me heartily, and talking about the time we’d first met, at some fancy function Mum and Dad had taken me, Al and Lily to, years ago.

I didn’t remember them.

They weren’t the only ones there; four or five other witches and wizards were also using the lift and wanted to shake my hand, to individually congratulate me and assure me their money was on England to win the World Cup, now that I’d made the squad. I didn’t often feel claustrophobic, but there was nothing I wanted more than to get out of the lift. Luckily, the Department for Magical Games and Sports was only one floor above the Atrium, so the journey wasn’t a long one.

And then the lift reached the Atrium and the grille slid open, and all I wanted to do was to retreat back to the administration office.

There were people, and cameras, and flashbulbs, totally filling the Atrium, all pointed at me. The excited murmur of voices I’d been greeted with accelerated into an animated fever when the journalists and cameramen saw me. One of the other people in the lift nudged me forwards slightly; I numbly stepped forwards out of it, frozen for a moment by the sheer number of people.

I glanced round nervously and saw Deirdre, the Prophet correspondent who was to interview me. She, of course, had picked me in her ‘squad’. The rest of the Prophet’s reporters were there too, along with the Which Broomstick? reporter who’d interviewed me about the new Nimbus, and the journalist who’d interviewed me for the Christmas special of Quidditch Weekly that I’d been on the cover of. The cameraman who’d taken the photos was there as well.

And then I saw Mum. She shot me a wink and a reassuring smile.

I could do this. Couldn’t I?

I stood up straight, and with an air of confidence that belied the nerves within, I strode across the Atrium to where Deirdre was waiting for me.

Yes, I could do this.

She greeted me warmly as I reached her, as though we were more than mere acquaintances. I wasn’t sure if this was how she treated everyone she interviewed, or just because she worked with my mother. Most people – like the Aurors in the lift – seemed to think that knowing my parents meant that they knew me. It irked me.

“Well done, James,” she said. “There was no doubt you’d make the squad. I’d have picked you, as I’m sure you’re aware-”

I nodded slightly.

The interview started off well enough. She asked me how I felt about having made the squad, and also how my season with the Falcons was going. Then she began treading on thin ice.

“Your family and friends must be delighted with the news?”

“I’ve not really talked to any of them yet,” I said uneasily, “but yeah, I suppose they are.”

“You must have seen your mother, though? She’s also here, of course, interviewing for the Prophet – have you spoken to her yet?”

“Yeah, I’ve chatted to her.”

“And what did she say?” she pressed.

“That’s between me and my mother,” I said in clipped tones.

“Of course it is.” She didn’t sound at all abashed. “I spoke to her myself earlier, she seems absolutely delighted. She picked you in her squad, of course, but you’ll already know that-”

“I didn’t, actually,” I said without thinking. I tried – and failed – to stop a smile from spreading across my face. Mum would have picked me. The thought filled me with happiness.

Of course, Deirdre’s next question brought me back down to earth with a thump.

“You must be glad, that you’ve eclipsed her achievements?”

I frowned.

“What do you mean?” I asked sharply.

“Well, your mother never played for England, did she? I’d imagine it must be hard, following in her footsteps, so it must please you to have gotten further than her...”

The comment irked me.

“My mother chose not to play for England,” I snapped. “She didn’t want to travel all over the world; she wanted to settle down with my father instead. And there are countless women across the country who were inspired to play Quidditch because of her. I don’t think my selection has eclipsed her career at all.”

Deirdre didn’t so much as bat an eyelid at this comment. Instead, she carried on in full flow.

“How about your girlfriend? I expect she’s pleased about your selection-”

“What girlfriend? I don’t have a girlfriend.”

“Our showbiz reporters have seen you with a pretty Muggle girl countless times. You can’t possibly have missed their speculation as to who she is? Perhaps you’d like to enlighten us?”

I could quite possibly have missed the speculation, given that I always avoided the gossip sections of the Prophet; I only ever read the back pages.

“She’s not my girlfriend,” I said firmly. “She’s just a friend-”

“She must be a very good friend if she knows about magic,” Deirdre pressed. “She’s been seen at several Quidditch matches, you know-”

I snapped. Fed up with the incessant questioning – I could deal with questions about Quidditch perfectly fine, but these people had no right to ask about my personal life – I stormed off, not bothering to answer the question. Out of the corner of my eye I caught Mum breaking off her own interview with Michael Wood, making as if to approach me, but I strode towards the fireplaces, seething with anger.

I didn’t care what Brigid said; I wasn’t going to do any of my other stupid interviews.

And I didn’t care about what Mum said either. I wasn’t going to visit Dad upstairs.

He probably wouldn’t care anyway.

I Apparated into my living room, relieved to have escaped the melee.

Then, with some surprise, I noticed that Carlotta was standing in the middle of the room. I couldn’t stop the smile from spreading across my face; if there was anyone I wanted to see right now, it was her.

“Guess who got called into the England squad?” I said, the euphoria of being chosen for the squad bubbling up again now that the resentment of the media was dying away.

But my grin faltered as I looked at her properly. She had an angry look on her face and an Daily Prophet in her hand.

“I know,” she said shortly. “I read it in the paper.” She paused, unfolding it. “Tell me, James; what do they mean by the ‘boy who lived’?”
 


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