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Off the Rails by water_lily43175
Chapter 46 : forty-six
 
Rating: MatureChapter Reviews: 5


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The team for the Bats match was announced on Tuesday, a day earlier than normal because the match itself was a day earlier than normal. This was no small relief for me, given that I’d still no idea whether I’d be playing or not. The match tactics hadn’t really given me any hints about the line-up, because the Chasers didn’t really have any tactics for this match. All our unit could do was play a natural game; we couldn’t afford to take any risks. And that meant Roxanne surely had as much chance of making the team as I did.

Every other position was settled. Alfie would, of course, captain from the hoops, and Sinead had already told me Della and Ryan would both be playing this match. Our team plans for the last two fixtures had been based on needing them both to play this one. Cato, Cleo and Stefan also knew they were playing. The only position that wasn’t a certainty was the third Chaser spot. My spot.

Except I didn’t think I could call it my spot any more.

I couldn’t bear the thought of not playing. This was the kind of match all Quidditch players lived for. Yes, there was a lot of pressure attached to it, but that was what made these fixtures so special. We thrived on the pressure, we loved having something to play for. At the Falcons, we hadn’t assumed this would be the title decider – the season may have been halved but there were still a lot of good sides, and it was never safe to assume anything in this sport – but it’d always promised to be a good match, and by the time we were half way through the season, we could see from the way the table was shaping up that it was likely to have a huge effect on the overall table.

But even without all that, it was still a big match. We could be playing for sixth and seventh, and the match would still be just as intense.

This was the Falmouth Falcons against the Ballycastle Bats. This was as big as it got.

The day absolutely dragged on, as I counted down the hours until Sinead finally put me out of my misery. The only question was whether it would be replaced by ecstasy or disappointment. I wasn’t even consciously hoping she’d tell me I was in the team. No, my main hope was that she wouldn’t be telling me I wasn’t in the team. Because I didn’t think I could bear to hear that.

It was with some trepidation that I filed into the changing rooms behind Ryan at the end of the day to change and freshen up – and to hear the team news. I tried to avoid eye contact with Roxanne. More than ever, I felt terrible for inadvertently hoping my cousin didn’t get what she wanted – because if she did, it would be at my expense.

“Most of you know whether you’re playing or not,” Sinead said once we’d all sat down on the benches. “Which makes this announcement a bit anti-climactic, to be honest.”

I was glad she thought that.

“So. Keeper is Alf, Seeker is Stef, Beaters are Cato and Cleo. And the Chasers are Della, Ryan and James.”

Wait – what?

She was still talking, but the words weren’t reaching my brain. I was dumbstruck. I was playing.

I was playing.

Against the Bats.

For the Cup.

Holy shit.

***

“You’d better make sure you don’t let the family down on Friday, Jim,” Roxanne said cheerily.

“I’ll do my best,” I reassured her. “I’m sorry you’re not playing, though.”

“Don’t be daft; of course I wasn’t going to be picked for this one. You know that.”

I looked at her oddly.

“What do you mean? You had every chance of being picked, after my behaviour and your performances.”

She laughed. She actually laughed.

“James, you can’t have honestly thought there was a chance Sinead wouldn’t pick you? You’re a first team player, and if ever a match needed first team players, it’s this one.”

I shook my head. “There’s no way she was always planning to play me! That’s far too risky.”

She shrugged.

“Suit yourself. I guess we’ll never know what was going through her head, which is probably best for both of us.”

I nodded in agreement. If we were both left assuming that the other had been favoured, it would bring the best out of both of us. The more mystery Sinead could create around her ultimate first team line-up, the better.

“Anyway, this wasn’t what I wanted to talk to you about,” she continued. She sat back in her seat, absent-mindedly scratching Cordelia behind the spot where I thought one of her ears was. “I couldn’t help but notice things have seemed a little tense between Freddie and Brigid of late.”

“You could say that,” I said lightly.

“What did he do this time?”

“What makes you think it was him?”

“Do you really need to ask that?”

I sighed.

“He...” I paused, not wanting to unintentionally insult Roxanne. “Can I ask you a personal question?”

She shrugged.

“Flesh and blood, mate, flesh and blood. Go ahead.”

“Do you ... do you feel as though your parents’ marriage ... affects you, in any way?”

Her face clouded slightly.

“So that’s what this is about, is it?”

“Is ... is that a yes? Or a no?”

It was her turn to sigh.

“I love my parents, I really do. But ... they don’t exactly make it easy for us.”

“In what sense?”

“Take Dad’s birthday. We don’t celebrate it. In fact, we barely see him. Because to him, it’s not his birthday, it’s Uncle Fred’s. He just ... shuts himself away. And Mum’s hardly any better. Nana Weasley used to take us off their hands when we were younger, you know. That was what I associated with Dad’s birthday; a day out with Nana Weasley. Because our parents were too preoccupied with themselves to look after their kids.”

Her tone of voice had turned bitter.

“And as for Victoire’s birthday...” She shook her head. “I mean, that’s a difficult day for most people, I know that.”

The second of May. Victory Day. A day of both celebration and remembrance. I supposed as the years and generations passed, it would become more of a celebratory holiday, but as it stood the events of that day and the years leading up to it were still too recent for the atmosphere to be any livelier than that of a morgue.

I knew lots of people thought it nice and symbolic that Victoire’s birthday fell on the anniversary of Voldemort's defeat, but she hated it. It wasn’t that she lacked respect for the past, far from it, but it upset her to see her relatives only half-heartedly taking part in her birthday celebrations.

Growing up, Victory Day had been an odd day in our household. Mum and Dad had never treated it as seriously as other branches of the family did. We recognised it by visiting Uncle Fred’s grave and those of Teddy’s parents, but Mum and Dad had never gotten openly upset or if they had, they’d made sure we didn’t see it.

But that was all we ever did. For us, the rest of the day was well and truly Victoire’s birthday. Before she’d left for Hogwarts, we’d always spent the day at Uncle Bill and Aunt Fleur’s house. While she was at Hogwarts we’d visit Hogsmeade. Nowadays, we visited her and Teddy.

We’d never missed a single celebration. Neither had Nana and Grandpa Weasley, or Uncle Percy and Aunt Audrey. Uncle Ron and Aunt Hermione had missed a couple– and Uncle George and Aunt Angelina had missed more than they’d been to.

I thanked my lucky stars my parents were relatively normal. It wasn’t something I’d given much thought before, but now that I did, I realised that my family home had never sat under a cloud of grief.

“It’s one of the most miserable days of the year, for us,” Roxanne said gloomily. “And it shouldn’t be. I don’t want it to be. It’s why I’ve stopped visiting Mum and Dad on that day. And it’s not as though they mourn the day he was born and the day he died and they’re fine the rest of the year; they’re like that all year round, underneath. It takes the smallest of catalysts to set them off. One day, all will be fine; the next, Dad will have come across an old photo or something and he’ll be out of action for the whole day. It’s awful, Jim.”

“I ... I hadn’t realised it was that bad...”

“They don’t help each other. In fact, I think they actually make it worse for each other. I know Uncle Fred was Dad’s twin, and so they were closest, but none of the rest of the family seem anywhere near as bad. Uncle Percy took it badly at first, by all accounts, having been right there at the time he died, but from what I’ve heard Aunt Audrey helped him through it, when they first got together. And Uncle Ron took it badly too, but Aunt Hermione was there for him. And your dad had Teddy to take up his full attention, and your mum’s always seemed emotionally healthy – not that it’s bad to grieve, but there’s a point at which it becomes unhealthy, and Mum and Dad passed that long ago. And then Uncle Bill and Aunt Fleur found the best medicine when they had Victoire.

“Mum and Dad needed that kind of emotional support, someone to lean on, but they’ve never had that because instead they wallowed in their grief together. I mean, how was my dad marrying his brother’s former girlfriend ever meant to be a good thing?” She shook her head. “I suppose that’s why Uncle Charlie’s never really healed from the war, either.”

I frowned. “What do you mean? He was barely around!”

“Exactly,” she said simply. “I think he feels guilty for that. Everyone else was risking their lives, while he stayed out of the firing line, and then his brother got killed. That’s why he stays away, and only visits occasionally, or that’s what Aunt Audrey says anyway. And you’ve got to wonder whether his relative solitude really helped that state of mind.”

“Merlin, we’re a messed up bunch,” I sighed.

She shrugged again.

“Depends how much we let our parents’ experiences mould us,” she said. “I learned long ago that my parents dwell too much on the past. I won’t deny that the thought of losing Freddie is ... well, it’s horrible. But it’s been nearly thirty years now, and everyone else has moved on to some extent. I mean, even Nana and Grandpa Weasley get by. And it must have been horrendous for them at the time. No parent should have to bury their own child ... but I digress. Does my parents’ marriage affect me? They both love me very much, I know that. And they do try to be upbeat as much as possible. But they don’t love each other. They’re both far too concerned with a man who’s been dead for twenty-eight years and who would prefer them to be living their lives to the full right now. It’s not exactly the nicest atmosphere to grow up in.”

“Would it stop you from getting involved in a relationship for fear that you’d mess it up somehow?”

“There’s always the chance you’ll mess up a relationship. That’s life.” Then comprehension dawned on her face. “Don’t tell me that’s what’s behind all this drama with Freddie and Brigid?”

“Seems so,” I said gloomily. “He’s worried he won’t be able to love her, and he’s finally told her that, but I don’t think he’ll do anything, and she certainly won’t any time soon.”

“And why should she?” Roxanne agreed. “But if she’s waiting for Freddie to come to his senses, then she’ll be waiting for the rest of her life.”

I winced.

“Isn’t that a bit dramatic?”

“She’s the only one who’d be able to change his mind,” she reasoned. “And she’ll know that. Obviously she’s hurt right now, but in time she’ll come to terms with it all. She’s a sensible girl, she’s got her senses all in order. She knows exactly who she is. And that’s exactly Freddie’s problem. He doesn’t see himself as his own person, he doesn’t know who he is.”

I cocked my head to one side curiously. This kind of character insight didn’t quite seem right coming from Roxanne, even if it was her brother we were talking about.

“Have you always known this?”

“Course not. I didn’t have a clue there was even anything wrong until I noticed they’d stopped talking to each other. I knew he liked her and wasn’t doing anything about it, but I figured that was just because of their bust up the other year. But now you’ve said what the issue is ... well, it explains a few things. I’ll chat to him, see if I can help, but ... I don’t know. What can I say? ‘You’re an idiot for letting our parents shape who you are’? It’s ... well, it’s understandable, isn’t it? He may not be right, but he can’t help it.”

“But you still think he’s an idiot.”

“Well, yes! Because he’s operating with the attitude of ‘I might screw things up so I’m not even going to try’. Why do you think he’s still working at the shop? Because he lets the fear of failure get to him too much. He needs to take the plunge with something; it’s the only way he’ll learn. But he needs someone to give him that nudge in the right direction, and Brigid could well be that person. But he’s done a damn good job of pushing her away, so if I were him I wouldn’t hold out too much hope.”

“She’s not the kind of person to hold a grudge, though,” I reasoned.

“There’s a difference between holding a grudge and being deeply hurt and offended by someone who’s supposed to care for you, James.”

This was one of those times I wondered if I’d ever fully understand women.

***

Ironically, given the importance of the Bats match, it was, to some extent, back to basics for me, Ryan and Della. Sinead wanted us to play our natural game, to forget this was a title decider and just go about our job of scoring goals. We couldn’t really afford to do anything else, at least at the start of the match. An attacking mentality might lead to mistakes, while a defensive attitude would allow the Bats’ Chasers to get on top of us. The challenge would be adapting our play as and when the situation required it. But there was a degree of relief that we didn’t have masses of pressure directly on our shoulders.

We had an exciting role to play at the start. Normally, Chasers used a Parkin’s Pincer – a move in which all three Chasers all flew in from different directions towards an opposition player – on the Chaser in possession of the Quaffle in an attempt to intimidate or distract or otherwise put them off their game. On Friday we’d be utilising it against their Beater, right at the start of the match.

Strictly speaking, taking an opposition player out with a Bludger was legal, so long as the Bludger was hit by a Beater. But the tactic was frowned-upon, as it was deemed unsportsmanlike and unsafe, so few teams ever used it. At the Falcons we liked to think that we played the game in the right manner; we played to win, but without playing dirty. This time round, our match plan revolved around unsportsmanlike behaviour. It hadn’t received full support within our squad – Julia still wasn’t totally behind it, and Laura shared her distaste – but most of us considered it necessary, and Cato and Cleo were absolutely revelling in the plan. It wasn’t often that Beaters were so involved in a match.

The rest of us were okay with the idea because of the context. Against any other players we might have hesitated more, but this was the Lynches. There was absolutely no doubting that their tactic would be to take Stefan out as soon as they could, so it seemed slightly less inappropriate for us to use the same tactic against them.

And I doubted there were many who wouldn’t enjoy seeing one of the Lynches knocked off his broom.

“We can’t touch him,” Della warned me and Ryan. “If we so much as breathe on him, he’ll try to have us for cobbing. Even if we don’t touch him, he could have us for blatching, so we need to make our intentions clear from the offset. If we look like we’re trying to take him out, we’ll concede a penalty and screw the whole plan up. Our sole aim is to distract him so the twins can take out his brother, we can’t do anything more.”

“I’m not sure how we’re meant to fly at him without it looking as if we’re trying to fly into him,” Ryan said wryly.

“That’s the sign of a world-class flyer,” she said cheekily. “We can do it. I trust you boys.”

It was a good thing she did, because I got the feeling Ryan was just as unsure as I was.

***

A surprise greeted me when I got home – Carlotta and Kreacher were cooking together in my kitchen.

“Don’t be mad,” were her first words to me. I had an odd sense of déjà-vu as she wielded her kitchen utensils in my direction.

“What are you doing?” I asked curiously.

“Master Albus is asking Kreacher to teach Miss Carly how to cook with pumpkins,” Kreacher explained.

“I think my name’s a bit hard for him to master,” Carlotta added with a slight smile. “I’m sorry, I know I should have asked you beforehand but you were out, and then Albus came by and I mentioned it to him and he summoned Kreacher straight here-”

I couldn’t stop a smile from spreading across my face, as I walked up to her and removed the utensils from her hands.

“It’s fine.” I planted a kiss on her forehead. “Just so long as it’s tasty.” I gave her backside a cheeky tap with the pumpkin-covered wooden spoon in my left hand.

“James!” she squealed, as she tried to wrestle back control of the spoon. “You’ve got pumpkin all over my jeans!”

“I’m sure I can take care of that,” I said solemnly, “but you’ll have to take them off first.”

“Behave.” She removed the utensils from my hands and rapped my nose sharply with the spoon. “Go and amuse yourself somehow while I finish cooking dinner.”

I grinned and headed into the living room, where I wiped the mashed pumpkin off my nose and licked it off my finger.

I didn’t say it out loud, but it crossed my mind that I could get used to coming home to Carlotta on a regular basis.

***

“They’re peculiar creatures, house elves, aren’t they?” she said later that night as we half-watched a film on the sofa. “I had to think twice every time I said something, in case he construed it as an order. Albus asked him to do what I asked him, but I didn’t realise just how literally he’d take that. I don’t think I’d like having one of my own. It seems so unfair when they have to obey all the time!”

“To be fair, they do like following orders, and I’m sure he really enjoyed teaching you to cook,” I reasoned. “But lots of them are abused even today. Aunt Hermione’s introduced reforms, but there’s only so far you can take them when the house elves themselves won’t complain about being mistreated. It is frustrating. She can’t stand it that Dad still has Kreacher, but she knows Kreacher wants to serve him and sees him as the one remaining link to his previous master. Besides, if Dad freed him, he’d only go to another family, because he’d hate being free. At least this way we can ensure he’s treated right.”

“He does seem to really love you all,” she said. “But then, I suppose they have to love their masters...”

“You’d be able to tell if it was genuine or not,” I said. “And he absolutely adores Lily, he always used to take treats to her when she first started at her Muggle school, because he knew she’d miss the magical world. He clashes with Mum a lot, but that’s because she likes doing household jobs like the cooking and the washing herself, and so they sometimes end up treading on each other’s toes a bit. That’s why he works at school during term time. I’m not sure what he’d do if he couldn’t work there. I suppose Mum would just have to deal with having him around. There’s no way that he could go to Al – he lives with Rose and she shares Aunt Hermione’s opinion. It would be far too risky for him to go to Lily, when she’ll be living with two Muggles. And as for me ... well, I suppose I could do with someone around to cook and clean, given that I’m useless at it, but I really can’t see myself in charge of a house elf. I’ll ask him to do the odd job if I really feel like I can’t do it, but I couldn’t let him do my bidding all day, every day. It would feel wrong.”

“I know what you mean,” she mused. She looked up at me, and a cheeky smile spread across her face. “I could be your house elf, if you want someone to cook and clean for you.”

“But house elves are free; they work for the job satisfaction. Are you telling me you’d work for the same?”

“Well, no,” she said, straddling my lap, “but I do work for something that’s equally as free, and by my calculations you owe me payment...”

Like the good person I was, I duly complied.


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