Chapter 44 : forty-four
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Putting it to one side wasn’t easy, not when all I wanted to do was to head back to Carlotta’s and this time refuse to leave. But I owed my teammates. I’d let them down once already, and I couldn’t do that again. They needed me to be in form and on the ball. So I did what I’d learned to do many years ago, and quashed all of my non-Quidditch-related thoughts.
Sinead again chose to delay the announcement of her team until Thursday. This was partly a show of confidence. It meant she trusted us to tidy up our team tactics within two days, as opposed to the three we were used to. It was more than just that, though. It was also a move of empathy – she wanted to save a certain young man as many sleepless nights as she possibly could.
It was clear from the squad’s reactions to her announcement that she’d let few people into the secret of who was to play against the Kestrels. Jake looked utterly stunned when he heard he was playing, as did nearly the rest of the squad. Only Cato, Cleo, Keira and Alfie looked unsurprised, which made sense; Sinead would have let her senior Beater and her captain in on the plan, and the Bagmans would surely have known she’d be forced to leave them out of the team. The rest of the team swallowed their surprise quickly, and moved in to congratulate Jake on his second start.
Roxanne too had looked pleasantly surprised when her name had been called, as though it hadn’t crossed her mind she was a definite at least for this match. I realised at that point that she also wouldn’t know we were effectively battling each other for the third spot in the team to play the Bats – that was, if she hadn’t already nabbed it. My stomach lurched with sickening nerves at that thought.
Sinead had managed to schmooze the German national team’s management, so that Della was allowed to play in this match. She looked excited at the prospect of playing alongside both me and Roxanne. Her admiration of our talent hadn’t gone unsaid, so it was easy to see why this team line-up enthused her, even if I didn’t quite understand her excitement. It seemed peculiar to me that one of Germany’s best ever Chasers, and indeed one of the best Chasers in the world right now, should be so honoured to be playing alongside me, especially when I remembered my thrill at playing alongside her for the first time.
At first, I didn’t feel nervous about the match at all. Yes, we had to win it to keep our control over the top of the table, but I knew that we could win, so I wasn’t worried.
Jake was, though. It was understandable; he’d only just made his debut, and now Sinead was throwing him to the lions. He’d played incredibly well against the Cannons, but they were far from the best team in the League. Jake was no fool; he knew this, and so would only take a small amount of comfort from his performance. It was a good attitude to have – complacency and over-confidence were perhaps a professional player’s worst enemies, and he would be guilty of both if he were to think himself invincible on the back of that match – but under-confidence could also be harmful. It was easier to deal with than cockiness, though, and certainly preferable. I’d take Jake’s nerves over McLaggen’s lack of them any day.
Thursday’s training started okay, but soon took a downhill tumble as Jake’s nerves utterly pulled him apart. With every mistake, his confidence took yet another battering, as he convinced himself he wasn’t up for the job. I could tell Sinead was beginning to worry she’d overestimated his mental strength. I decided intervention was needed, and took my opportunity when she signalled a break after Roxanne was almost taken out by a Bludger.
“Remember your first Quidditch game for Hufflepuff?” I asked Jake as I landed next to him on the bench.
The memory brought the smallest of smiles to his face.
“It was against us, I seem to remember,” I continued. “It was Roxie’s first match as well – and Freddie and Albus’, actually. Roxie played well – damn well. Took even Ryan by surprise. Freddie had a good game at Beater, too. But I seem to recall this annoying little shit in yellow, who was always there with a Bludger to smack at us, and ruined countless scoring opportunities for us. He made our Freddie look mediocre in comparison, and almost knocked Al off his broom. We were lucky to win that match in the end – and the Cup as well, actually. You guys came second that year, didn’t you? Little Ruby Ellerby rocked up on the scene at the same time, and you had Wadcock and Keily as well. Not a bad team at all. But – forgive me if I sound arrogant here – we had a damn good team as well that year. And yet, you didn’t seem nervous...”
He laughed hollowly.
“Oh, I was,” he said. “I was petrified at first. That first shot that took the Quaffle out of your hands was an accident. But then I guess I figured that the only person who could control my performance was me.”
I grinned, unable to help myself.
“So what’s the difference here, then?”
He turned to look at me, realising the trap I’d neatly led him into.
“Well – that was school! This is totally different-”
“How?” I asked simply. “You’re playing, I’m playing, Roxie’s playing, Keily’s playing for them ... same players, right? Just a little bit bigger than we used to be. It’s the same sport, just on a slightly bigger pedestal. You’ve got exactly the same job as the one you had as a scrawny little twelve year old. What’s the worry?”
“They’re better than you guys were at school though,” he said. “No offence,” he added hurriedly.
“None taken,” I said with another grin. “Sure, they’re better. But we’re all better. You’re better now than you were then, as well. And you’re more than a match for them.
“I remember my first big match for the Falcons. We were playing the Tornados at Tutshill. I was playing alongside Ryan and Della for the first time. And I was petrified. I’d played with Ryan for years at school, but he was incredible by that point, one of the best Chasers in the league that season. And as for Della ... she was the big name signing, the German star ... I couldn’t believe I was anywhere near their level of talent, let alone that I was being trusted to play alongside them, against the likes of Robins and McLaggen.
“And then I got up into the air, and got the Quaffle in my hands ... and I felt at home. It felt right. I was where I belonged. The guys alongside and opposite me were just normal people, who liked flying and playing as much as I did. If I was fallible, then so were they. And more importantly, if they were so good ... then why couldn’t I be just as good?
“I didn’t have a perfect match. I’m not sure I’ve ever had a perfect match, or if anyone has ever had a perfect match. But I put in a performance I was pleased with. You just have to shut out the outside world, forget you’re playing for the Falcons against the Kestrels at the end of the season, and just tell yourself you’re back in those yellow robes, playing a school match again. Because it’s just as even a playing field now as it was back then. And besides, Sinead clearly thinks you’ve got the ability-”
“I’m not so sure she does now,” he put in, though he looked a bit more at ease than he had before.
“You’re just human.” I shrugged. “She’s been there before, she knows it’s just nerves getting to you. Besides, surely it’s best to get all the nerves and mistakes out of your system on the training pitch, rather than on the playing field?”
“What if they come back on Saturday though?”
“Oh, the nerves will be there. In fact, they’d better be there; otherwise it means you’re turning into McLaggen and that’s the last thing we need.”
He allowed himself a wry grin.
“But the mistakes? You can keep them away. You’re the only one who can keep them away, but I know you can do it. We all do. So go out there and show us what you’ve got,” I finished, ruffling his hair.
“Get out of it, Junior.” He laughed, and pushed my hand away.
“I’m being called Junior by a kid two years younger than me. Utter madness.” I shook my head in mock disbelief. “On with you, Jenkins. Go on, go hit some iron.”
He grinned, and got to his feet.
“Thanks, James. You’re right; I guess I just need to believe in myself a little bit more.”
And with that, he mounted his broom and kicked off into the air again, oozing with confidence, and called down to Cato to release one of the Bludgers.
Satisfied, I turned to head towards Della and Roxanne. I noticed Keira watching me, an unreadable expression on her face. I shot her a smile, and she winked back at me.
I may have managed to calm down our Beater’s nerves, but on Saturday it was my turn to come unravelled.
“I need to play well,” I told Mum as she cooked my breakfast. “From what I’ve gathered, Sinead hasn’t decided whether to play me or Roxanne against the Bats. If I play poorly, and she plays well, she’ll get the spot. And while I want her to do well...”
“You don’t want it to be at your expense,” Mum supplied when I trailed off. “It’s perfectly understandable, James; you don’t need to feel guilty about it. Team sports are cruel. You find yourself pitted against your own team mates in a battle to play. It’s okay to want to beat them into the team, but it’s important that you’re graceful in defeat if they beat you to a spot. And I know you will be. But I think you’re letting yourself worry too much. Just go out there and play. Bear in mind that Roxanne’s only played five games this season-”
“But I’ve not played many more,” I interjected.
“No, but you have two seasons on her,” she pointed out. “Experience is invaluable. I think you’ll be fine.”
“You have to say that,” I grumbled. “You’re my mother.”
“That may be so, but it doesn’t stop me from being right. Remember, I’m always right.”
“There’s no arguing with you, is there?” I sighed.
“You’re learning,” she said approvingly.
“There’s still hope for me yet – how many are you cooking for?” I frowned, noticing she was cooking more than she normally did for just me and her...
She turned and opened her mouth to answer the question, but it proved to be redundant as a quiet pop sounded from the living room. Moments later, Dad strolled into the kitchen.
“Morning, James,” he said around a yawn.
“I – what are you doing here?” I asked, gobsmacked.
“I thought I might join you and your mother for breakfast this morning.” He helped himself to a glass of pumpkin juice. “If that’s alright with you?”
“I – yeah, sure, that’s fine.” I tried – and failed – to hide my smile.
“So, how’re you feeling?” he asked, taking a seat opposite me.
“Harry!” Mum scolded. “Don’t offer to help me cook, then!”
“I didn’t think you’d want me to. You always tell me off for getting in the way at home,” he said innocently.
I hid a snicker.
She sighed and hit him round the head with a tea towel. He raised his arm, caught it and tugged. She squealed and fell into his lap, and he pulled her into a deep kiss.
“Do you mind?” I said loudly.
They pulled apart, and Mum jumped up and headed back to the hob, her face bright red. Dad winked at me.
“So,” he said again, “how are you feeling?”
“We have to win today,” I said. “We’re a hundred and sixty points ahead of the Bats; that’s easily overturned. If we slip up today and lose too many of those points, we’ll make things harder for ourselves next Friday.”
“Who are the Bats playing today?”
“The Harpies,” Mum chipped in, as she dished up.
“And how have they been this season?” Dad asked her.
As a reporter on the entire Quidditch League, Mum had a responsibility to keep an eye on every team’s fortunes. She concentrated on the Falcons more than the other teams, due to the family links, but gave almost as much attention to her old team.
“Mixed fortunes,” she said. “They played really well against the Tornados, but completely capitulated against the Pride and the Kestrels. They’re looking at a mid-table finish. Their team for today isn’t a very strong one because they have to rest a lot of their girls.”
I pulled a face at the thought that the Bats would have an easy match.
“The Bats are resting players too, aren’t they?” Dad asked.
“The Lynches aren’t playing,” she informed us.
“They’re still a good team even without the Lynches, though,” I said darkly, accepting my breakfast plate from Mum.
“But you can’t affect their game,” Dad reminded me. “You just need to go out there and play like we know you can, and get a good win. Worry about the Bats permutations tomorrow.”
“I know,” I sighed. “But the Kestrels are a good team too.”
“Are they resting anyone?”
“I think they’re resting Connolly,” I said, “which helps us Chasers a bit given that we’re resting Ryan. And they’re resting O’Hare as well, which seems a bit silly – why rest your Chaser and your Keeper in the same match? Keily’s playing though. I guess they don’t want to put out a weak Seeker against Klaus, especially if they have a weakened Chaser attack.”
“I don’t think you have any need to worry,” Dad said confidently, tucking into his bacon. “You’ll be great, you always are.”
On another day, the remark would have been properly taken in and processed for its significance. But today I was so nervous that even my father’s unwavering confidence wasn’t enough to soothe me.
Truth be told, I wasn’t nervous about having to beat the Kestrels, per se. I was petrified about playing alongside Della and Roxanne.
We had no idea how well we’d work together. I was used to the dynamics that Ryan, Della and I had. Ryan was the biggest, bulkiest and fastest at pure flying; Della was the smallest and the sneakiest; and I came somewhere in between, and had the fastest pass. We were so used to playing in accordance with those attributes that I barely had to think any more when I played alongside them; that was how easy it had become for us.
Of course, Della and Roxanne had had the three matches I’d not played to get used to playing alongside each other. Roxanne was smaller and slighter than Della, whose role within the trio had changed slightly as a result of this. Some manoeuvres involved us hiding the smallest Chaser; now that was Roxanne, and Della had to perform a completely different role than the one she was used to. Not that any of us doubted her; she was, after all, a fine international player.
I was doubting myself, though. Today, I was the biggest, strongest player, so I’d have to do the things Ryan normally did, like blocking the opposition at the start of the match to ensure Della got away with the Quaffle. I’d be marked by the Kestrels’ biggest player. Basically, I’d have to adopt a role I wasn’t used to. I may have played alongside Brigid and Roxanne at school for two years, but at school, we’d put hardly any thought into how a trio worked together. That was far too in-depth for a bunch of school kids to come up with; we just deployed the basic manoeuvres, like the Parkin’s Pincer. This would be totally different from anything I’d ever done before.
I hadn’t played a Quidditch match in Falcons colours without Ryan on my shoulder. That was what scared me the most.
“You’ll be fine,” he reassured me in the changing rooms before the match, clapping my shoulder.
But I was still nervous, and clearly he could see that.
“You know,” he said quietly, “you’re going to leave me far behind you, one of these days. Both me and Della. You’re going to have to get used to not having us around.”
I laughed slightly.
“Don’t be ridiculous-”
“I’m not,” he said, so sincerely I couldn’t possibly not believe him. “You’ll be fine, Junior. I know you will.”
Knowing that I had the support of my teammate and mentor of nine years reassured me in a way my parents’ comments hadn’t. I knew they genuinely believed in me, but all the same they were saying those things to their son. Ryan was talking to a fellow teammate, which was an entirely different situation. A parent’s duty was to reassure their kids no matter what, whereas teammates didn’t sugar-coat their words. It didn’t help things. Every word I’d said to Jake was genuine – and everything Ryan said to me was just as bona fide. And when the time came to fly out to the pitch, I felt every bit as confident as Jake looked.
Quidditch was an odd sport in many ways. One of the ways it was oddest was in its scoring. With most sports, the final score generally told a story about how the teams compared, but with Quidditch, the scores almost always told the opposite story.
If one team beat another by about a hundred and fifty points or so, it in fact meant it had been a close match, with the Chasers evenly matched and only the Snitch capture marking the difference between them. On the other hand, if the scores were close it meant that one Chaser unit had likely outshone the other, but the Snitch capture had gone the opposite way. The only score line that told the honest truth was if one team beat the other by more than two hundred points; that really did mean that the winning team had given the losing team an utter trouncing.
We trounced the Kestrels.
They’d made a bad move in resting Shane Connolly and Aiden O’Hare in the same match. Just as I’d predicted, any move which weakened a Chaser unit should be balanced with the strongest possible Keeper, and vice versa; weakening both at the same time was fatal. They’d clearly hoped Brianna Keily would be able to catch the Snitch before they fell too far behind.
But they’d underestimated Klaus. He’d actually seen the Snitch a couple of times early on in the match, and had done the exact opposite of what Sinead had ordered him to do. Instead of securing a catch, and a win for us, he’d led Brianna off in the opposite direction, allowing us Chasers to make hay.
And make hay we did.
The biggest success story of this match wasn’t the performance of us Chasers. In fact, because we weren’t used to playing alongside each other we’d made some stupid mistakes; luckily Della and Alfie both had the experience and nous to save those situations. Alfie had been absolutely flawless in front of the hoops.
But the stand out performance belonged to Jake. His confidence and enthusiasm had been infectious, and he’d made some seriously good hits, including one which took their Keeper out for a fair few minutes – that had been the moment which really allowed us to pull ahead on the scorecard. The summary would gift those goals to me, Roxanne and Della, but in truth they all belonged to Jake.
Given the sheer margin of our victory, we were all feeling quietly confident that we’d done enough to secure the League, regardless of next Friday’s match against the Bats. Unfortunately, Sinead soon burst this bubble with the news that the Bats, too, had thumped their opposition. This meant that instead of us extending our lead, they’d actually eaten into it.
We led them by eighty points. Next Friday’s match had everything riding on it; the result would determine who won this year’s League.
But I wasn’t worrying about that right now. Now I’d gotten the Kestrels match out of the way, there was only one thing on my mind.
I stopped by at the Tav first, the next morning. I wasn’t sure if she’d be back at work yet, but it was worth a look given that her workplace was only round the corner from me. It proved fruitful; the girl behind the till, the same one I’d talked to a week before, turned to the kitchen door as soon as she saw me and called for Carlotta.
She emerged from the kitchens in her chef whites, and came to an abrupt halt when she saw me. She looked both confused and hopeful.
“James,” she said.
“Can you take your half hour break yet?” I asked her.
I wasn’t sure what her answer would have been if the other girl hadn’t all but forced her out of her chef’s hat and out from behind the counter.
“I’ll take that as a yes,” I said with a slight smile. “Can we talk?”
“I guess so,” she said, her voice and facial expression both giving little away.
I led her out of the Tav, and up the road towards the public park.
“Are you feeling better?” I asked, shoving my hands in my pockets – my arms felt heavy hanging by my sides.
“A little,” she replied. “The doc gave me some stronger stuff, so we’ll have to see how long that lasts.”
I winced at the bitter edge to her voice.
“Why didn’t you tell me you read my Aunt’s research?” I asked her curiously.
“You know about that?” She looked awkward.
“She told me. I went to see her the other day. She said you’d shown an interest in it, and that this explained why...”
There was a slight pause, before she spoke – and her response wasn’t what I’d expected.
“I didn’t want you to think I was using you.”
“Why would I think that?”
“Oh, don’t be daft. You can’t mean to say the thought hasn’t even crossed your mind...”
She gave me a peculiar look, as we reached the park.
“I don’t know whether you’re just naive or whether you just only see the best of a situation...” she mused. “I just ... I didn’t think it looked good, you know? Because ... when I first found out about magic, I freaked. But then when you started explaining it to me, it seemed less daunting ... and I was genuinely interested, I was. But then the thought crossed my mind, maybe you guys would know of something that could help me. And so I got your Aunt’s notes, and I read them all. Every last roll of parchment. You have no idea how hard it was to hide it all from Flick – what on earth would she have made of parchment? And, of course, I didn’t find anything, because there was nothing to find. You’re all as stumped as we are. That was probably when I first consciously thought I should back out ... and I was worried you’d think I was only hanging around because of the possibility of a cure, and that once I’d learned there wasn’t one I didn’t have a reason to stay. It was the opposite; I just couldn’t stay if I had something that couldn’t be cured...” She trailed off.
“I’m sorry,” I said sincerely. “Honestly, if there was anything I could do, then I would-”
“Don’t be silly,” she said with a faint smile. “It’s hardly your fault. It’s nobody’s fault. It’s just the way things are.”
“So why punish yourself for it?” I asked her.
She gave me another bemused look.
“Punishing myself? How am I punishing myself?”
“Because you won’t let yourself live. You won’t let yourself be happy, won’t let other people make you happy-”
“I’m not having this conversation again, James,” she said flatly.
“Well, you’re going to have to, because I’m not going to give up until you change your mind,” I insisted. “Look, if the problem is that you’re worried I’m going to do a runner, then I promise you, I won’t-”
“That’s not the issue.”
“Then what is?”
“The issue is that you’re loyal to a fault. I believe you when you say you’ll stay. And that’s the problem. I won’t let you throw your life away like that-”
I came to a halt by the lake in the park, and took her arm, spinning her round to face me.
“Why do you think it has to come down to that?” I demanded. “Why are you so adamant that your personal life’s at a dead end, all because of an illness?”
She wrenched her arm away from me, looking furious all of a sudden.
“It’s not at a dead end! I’m doing this for you, because you deserve better! Just stop trying to talk about something you don’t understand-”
I stepped forwards and took her face in my hands, the pads of my thumbs lightly stroking her cheeks. She closed her eyes at the touch.
“Then help me understand,” I said quietly. “Let me in, let me help. I assure you, I know exactly what I do and don’t deserve in life, and if I don’t deserve you then it’s because you deserve better, not me. And I’m not going to walk away just because you tell me to. You can say no all you like, but I’m not going to leave you alone until you give in.”
“I’ll get a restraining order,” she said with a slight smile, her eyes flickering open.
I smirked back at her.
“I’d like to see the Muggle courts trying to enforce an order on someone who doesn’t exist in their jurisdiction.”
She let out an aggravated sigh.
“You’re so bloody stubborn...”
“You have met my mother, right?” I said teasingly. “She fought tooth and nail for Dad, and didn’t stop until they were married. Now, I’m not saying I’m about to get down on one knee or anything-”
“I should think not,” she cut in lightly.
“-but I’m not going to walk away just because you’ve told me to, and I’m certainly not going to believe my life could possibly be changed for the worse because of you. I’m not trying to say that things will be easy – I’ve at least learned some things since I came to see you last time – but it’s nothing that I can’t deal with. I promise you that.”
She looked utterly torn.
“Just...” she began slowly, “just promise me that if I begin to get in the way of your career, you won’t throw it away or do something else stupid so as to look after me-”
“No chance of me promising that one,” I said brightly. “I’ll be the one to decide what comes first out of my job and you, thank you.”
“But ... but you love Quidditch-”
“I do,” I agreed. “But I also enjoy spending time with you – when you’re not trying to stop me from doing so, that is. And when – if – I ever have to make that decision, then I’ll make it on my own terms, and not because I made some stupid promise I made today here by the lake to appease you.”
“I hate you,” she muttered.
“I don’t think you do,” I replied, and then I kissed her.
She didn’t respond straight away, but after a moment she started kissing me back, so when I finally pulled away I had a huge grin on my face.
“I’m going to take that to mean that you give in,” I said.
She still seemed to be in two minds, but I could tell that she was close to giving in.
“We’re not agreeing all of this on your terms-” she began.
“I didn’t make any terms; I just refused to agree to yours.”
She tried to look angry, but seemed unable to prevent a smile from spreading across her face.
“Just promise me that if it gets too much for you, you’ll say something and not just suffer in silence...” she said.
“I will,” I said, “but it won’t.” I kissed her again, then glanced at my watch. “We’d better head back, or you’ll overrun.”
“Yeah, I guess. “ She pulled a slight face.
I smirked, slinging an arm round her shoulders and leading her out of the park.
“I know, I know, you can’t bring yourself to leave my side,” I said cheekily. “Wouldn’t it be convenient if I lived just round the corner from your workplace so you could come to see me when you finish later?”
“Is that a thinly veiled invitation?”
“It’s whatever you want it to be.”
“I might pop round once I’m done, unless I have any better offers.”
“Dream on, darling, dream on. Any chance of you getting me lunch on the house?”
Her response was loud, accompanied by vivid hand gestures, and definitely not appropriate in a public setting.
“I’ll take that as a yes, then,” I said with a grin.
Right now, I was on cloud nine.
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