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Off the Rails by water_lily43175
Chapter 47 : forty-seven
 
Rating: MatureChapter Reviews: 7


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I woke early on Friday morning, feeling sick with nerves.

This was my third end-of-season match – and in each one we’d had a chance of winning the title, so long as the result went our way. It at least meant the situation I was in wasn’t completely new to me, which had to be a good thing.

In some ways, I had less pressure on me than in those previous matches. The first time round we’d been playing for the Falcons’ first title in eight years, which was a huge chip to have hanging over our shoulders. Then in last year’s match us Chasers had had a huge role to play, which had been an immense challenge. I didn’t have so much to do this time round, so my performance would have less of a bearing on the overall match result.

Still, I felt a lot of personal pressure on my shoulders. I felt like I owed my friends and family, Sinead and my fellow players, and just as importantly the fans, a good performance. This season I’d played some of my best Quidditch, but I’d also served up my worst behaviour off the pitch. I knew just how lucky I was to have regained my spot in the Falcons team, and I wanted to prove Sinead had made the right decision. I wanted to show the world I deserved to wear the Falcons colours, and that my England call-up hadn’t been a fluke, even if I had made a hash of that opportunity. I’d never let myself down on the pitch, and I wanted to remind people of that.

Mum turned up at around eight for breakfast. It may not have been a Saturday, but she realised the importance of the match, and knew how nervous I’d be for it.

“Dad’s got most of the day off work, but he’s had to pop into the office to sort a few things out. He should be here soon,” she reassured me, as she cracked four eggs into a saucepan.

I liked how she assumed there’d be an extra person.

Sure enough, Carlotta turned up within ten minutes of Mum. She’d been at work the night before, so she was running off only five hours of sleep. She seemed to almost regret not getting here first to start off breakfast. But within moments, she was back to her upbeat self, and was soon asking why the hell this game was on a Friday anyway.

 Because the World Cup draw was scheduled when it was assumed the season would be a full-length one,” Mum explained. “Then the powers that be decided the sensible decision was to cut the season by half, and scheduled the final round of matches for the same weekend as the draw. The International Board complained that players would be playing on the day of the draw and therefore unable to fulfil various international commitments, so the League moved the matches back to today to appease them.”

“But can’t matches go on for a day or more?” Carlotta asked.

“Well, yes. But the League were never going to move this round of matches by more than a day, because it’d mean admitting they were wrong. So the matches take place on a Friday when most fans will be at work, which quite frankly is a farcical state of play. But it’s what we’ve got, so we just have to deal with it. Besides, I think Lily’s happy as it means James will make it to her school dance tomorrow. It’s unlikely any of these matches will go on longer than a day, even if it is possible.”

“Lily doesn’t give a damn about me making it to this prom of hers, so long as Cato makes it,” I pointed out.

“Oh, don’t say that. You know she wants you there, even if she won’t admit it,” Mum said.

“If she wanted me there, she’d want Al there too, and I don’t see her taking him along.”

“Of course she’s not going to take one of her brothers as her date when she can take a good-looking eligible young man!” She sounded exasperated. “But she’s hardly going to object to you taking Maddie, and now you’ve said you’re going I think she really wants to see you there.”

“Which is ironic, given that Maddie herself couldn’t care less about this kind of occasion.”

“She may say she doesn’t care, but she’s hardly going to turn down the chance to take a date of her own.”

“Only because she doesn’t want to be the only one without a date,” I reasoned. “Plus I think there’s an element of wanting to piss her brother off for taking the resident bint instead of Lily.”

“James!” Mum scolded.

“You don’t like Rosalind either!”

“No, but at least I use slightly more appropriate language when expressing my dislike,” she said. “Besides, shouldn’t you be concentrating on your own affairs rather than your sister’s? Primarily today’s game?”

I grimaced.

“I don’t even have anything to do,” I said. “Just get in the way of Eoin Lynch’s eyesight at the start. After that, there’s not much more I can do.”

“Except stop them scoring goals,” Mum said. “And the only way to do that, is by-”

“Scoring goals of our own, I know,” I finished dully.

“Not necessarily scoring,” she clarified. “But at least by dominating the match-up and retaining the Quaffle for as long as is possible. Remember, a lot of the time it comes down to the mind. Who has the most self-belief. You let them into the game through goals, and you give them more of an advantage.”

“But they can win without scoring the goals.”

“They can, but if they don’t score any goals it’s all down to one man, the same as you,” she reminded me. “And scoring a few might not make up the points difference but it might give their Seeker that extra bit of motivation to go for it. Do you really want to give them even the slightest opportunity of winning the Cup?”

She was right. Of course she was; she’d had enough experience at the top level of the game to know what she was talking about. But it was difficult to go into a match knowing that no matter how much was riding on it, your own personal performance may well prove meaningless in the end. I knew that mentality was a poisonous one, but it was still hard to shake it off.

“Whatever the result, just make sure you don’t drink too much tonight,” Mum added sternly. “Nana Molly’s putting on a huge lunch for the whole family tomorrow for the Cup draw, and it really wouldn’t do for you and all your cousins to be hungover.”

“I’m not allowed to drink these days,” I reminded her.

“I’m sure Sinead didn’t intend the ban to last forever, James. I think she just wanted to make sure you got through the rest of the season without any more nasty incidents.”

“But maybe she’s right? Maybe I should just stop drinking?”

Mum shrugged.

“It’s up to you,” she said. “But it’s not as if you have an ongoing problem with alcohol, is it? It was just a lot of things all coming to a head at the same time. Going out and getting drunk just exacerbated the problem. I wouldn’t have blamed you if you’d lamped that photographer when sober, quite frankly.”

“I’m going to pretend you didn’t say that,” I said dryly.

“Possibly for the best,” she agreed. “Point is, I think you can allow yourself a small tipple later, if you win. Maybe stay clear of that Heidelberg stuff though, you’ll feel rotten in the morning if you touch it.”

“Don’t I know it,” I said darkly.

There was a small pop from the living room, and moments later Dad joined us in the kitchen. He looked at Carlotta, and then at Mum, who had a hand outstretched and a smug look on her face. He sighed, and plunged a hand into his pocket.

“Really?” he moaned.

“Really really. Hand it over, Potter.”

He shook his head, and deposited a handful of coins into her palm. She counted them out, a satisfactory look on her face.

What?” Carlotta mouthed at me, bemused.

I shrugged, but I had a wry grin on my face. My parents liked to bet with each other, and given the extra egg in the saucepan, I had a funny feeling I knew what this one was about.

“How you feeling, Jim?” Dad asked me, as he’d done at breakfast last week.

I shrugged.

“Okay.”

He grinned at me.

“You’ll do fine. You always do.”

“Do you think you’ll win the Cup?” Carlotta asked.

I answered her honestly.

“I don’t know.”

***

One thing that could be guaranteed about the last match of the season was my whole family showing up to watch it. We were the first to arrive at the ground, but Albus and Rose weren’t far behind us. Rose had brought Scorpius Malfoy along, which I considered an interesting turn of events. Mum and Dad greeted him cordially, but I didn’t miss the warning look that Mum gave Dad once Rose had steered Scorpius in Carlotta’s direction. I hid a grin; it seemed that when it came to Dad old habits died hard.

The family arrived in dribs and drabs. Uncle Ron, Aunt Hermione and Hugo were the next to arrive, followed by Uncle Bill’s branch of the family, including Teddy and the kids. Louis, true to form, looked rather worse for wear. They also brought along a surprise in the shape of Uncle Charlie.

“What are you doing here?” I asked as I greeted him. “I didn’t expect to see you!”

“Wasn’t going to miss this occasion, was I?” he beamed. “Falcons versus Bats, last game of the season, and a title decider to boot? It was either this or the Cannons match,” he added in a low voice, “and I think I made the right decision. You’d better make sure of that.”

“I will.” I grinned, but I was mentally cursing him for lumping yet more pressure onto the match situation.

“Enough of Quidditch, though. I’ve got a bone to pick with you, young man,” he said sternly. “What happened to your vow to follow my way of life, at Dominique’s wedding? Not seven months later, here you are settling down with a bird! What’s happened to you, kid?”

“I’m not settling down!” I objected. “It’s just a bit more serious than I’m used to. She cooks, and even better, she cleans as well!”

“Ah, well, it all makes sense.” He winked at me. “Muggle, I hear? You’ll have to introduce me to the lucky lady if the time ever arises.”

“I can do that right now, if you’d like?” I turned to look for Carlotta, who was in discussion with Victoire. “Carla!” I called.

She turned to see me, and I beckoned her over. She said something to Victoire, before heading in our direction.

I turned back to Uncle Charlie, who looked surprised.

“But she’s a Muggle...” he began.

“She came to the first match of the season,” I said proudly. “She’s well clued up now.” She reached us, and I slipped an arm round her waist. “Carla, this is my intrepid Uncle Charlie – the one who works with dragons. Uncle Charlie, this is Carlotta.”

“It’s lovely to meet you.” He extended a hand, which she shook; I watched for her slight surprise as she touched his calloused hand. “I’ve heard quite a bit about you, although I can’t say I expected to see you here.”

“It took me a while before I could see the ground, but we got there in the end.” She smiled. “So, dragons really exist?”

He grinned.

“Of course they do! Where do you think all the stories came from? You think someone just made them up? Surely you’ve seen James’ dragon hide jacket? There aren’t as many dragons around as there used to be, sadly, but there are still over fifteen different species, including two that are native to the British Isles...”

Carlotta seemed utterly engrossed in the conversation, and so I left them to it and headed over to Freddie, who’d just arrived with Uncle George and Aunt Angelina.

“How you feeling?” he asked.

“Fucking petrified,” I confessed. “We’ve got a slightly unfamiliar role at the start of the match – me, Murph and Della. If we don’t pull it off, then the whole game plan is screwed.”

He pulled a face.

“Sounds rough. You’ll do fine though. You guys have played enough with each other by now.”

“It’s not about our Chaser skills, though,” I said. “It’s our flying skills.”

“Well, you’ve got nothing to worry about! You’re one of the best flyers around!”

“Yeah, that doesn’t guarantee I’ll manage this though.”

He shrugged. “The powers that be obviously think you will.”

“Sometimes they put more faith in me than they should.” He opened his mouth to say something, but I got there first. “Talked to Brigid yet?”

His face darkened.

“No.”

“Well, you’re going to have to sooner or later. You can’t avoid her forever. Is she going to the Weasley lunch tomorrow?”

He shrugged again.

“Not unless you’ve invited her. I’m not sure if people are taking friends along or just significant others. And I’m sure she’ll be busy with the Ireland squad’s plans anyway. You invited Carlotta?”

“I hadn’t thought of that.”

He snorted.

“You’d better do, or I think Nana Molly will have your guts for garters.”

“I can invite her alright, but she can’t go if she can’t see The Burrow,” I pointed out. “It took us long enough to make the breakthrough here, and we’ve not tried anywhere else since.”

“I expect it’ll be easier now you’ve done it once,” he said. “Not that I’m an expert on magical theory all of a sudden or anything. Hey up, Rosie’s brought Malfoy along, has she? Reckon he’ll be at lunch tomorrow?”

“Behave,” I warned him, smiling all the same. “Look, Brigid’s just turned up, you could talk to her-”

“I’d better go and welcome Malfoy into the fold, don’t you think?” he said hurriedly, and walked off.

I sighed, shaking my head in despair.

“He’s not causing trouble, is he?” Brigid asked lightly, as she approached me.

“You know him, he lives to cause trouble,” I pointed out. “You okay?”

“Shouldn’t I be the one asking you that?” She sounded amused.

“Underneath this cool, calm exterior, I’m bloody shitting myself,” I said dryly. “But I’ll be fine, my teammates are all world class.”

“So are you, on your day! You’ll be amazing, Jim, I know it-”

Her attention was distracted by something behind her. I turned, expecting to see Freddie doing something stupid, but my eyes fell on someone entirely different.

“You didn’t tell me who you wanted those tickets for,” Brigid said hollowly, seeing Ingrid wheel Mark’s chair towards the stands. “Merlin’s beard – I didn’t even know you were still in touch with her!”

“I wasn’t, until recently. She helped me out when I was in a sticky situation.” I turned back to face Brigid, who had a peculiar expression on her face.

“I can’t believe she’s here...”

“Oh, for the love of Merlin, Brie, you can’t still not like her-”

“I was so horrible to her.” Her voice was barely a whisper. “Oh, James, she probably hates me!”

Now it was clear why she was so hesitant about Ingrid’s presence, my heart softened.

“It’ll be fine,” I reassured her. “Of course she doesn’t hate you! If you feel bad about it, just go and talk to her, she won’t bite your head off!”

She looked slightly less nervous.

“Okay,” she said. “Yeah, I’ll do that, I’ll go and talk to her-”

She stopped midway through her sentence. I turned in the direction of her gaze again, and saw Freddie leading Carlotta towards Ingrid and Mark. As we watched, he greeted Ingrid with a cordial kiss on the cheek and then shook hands with Mark, before gesturing towards Carlotta, presumably introducing them all. I wasn’t sure whether to be grateful to him for approaching Ingrid with such friendliness after everything that had happened, appreciative that he’d taken Carlotta with him, or petrified that he was introducing her to my ex-girlfriend.

Nevertheless, he was demonstrating that kind-hearted side to him which, in my opinion, he didn’t show often enough, and when I turned back to face Brigid she had a soft, slightly adoring expression on her face.

If only he’d just stop being such a bloody idiot.

***

The tension in the changing room was enormous. The entire squad was here – team, reserves and spares. The spare players had absolutely no requirement to even be at the game, but there was never any chance that someone might not turn up.

That was to say, almost the entire squad was here. All the reserves and spares were present – but we didn’t have a full team.

Alfie, our captain, wasn’t here.

“Where the hell is he?” Sinead hissed, pacing the floor. “He’s always here early, this isn’t like him at all...”

At that precise moment, he burst through the door with his kit bag slung over his shoulder and his broomstick in his hand.

“I’m so sorry,” he panted heavily. “It’s Elodie – she’s been rushed to hospital, they think it’s early labour-”

Elodie was his older sister. We knew she was pregnant – but she wasn’t due for another eight or so weeks. When he’d told us the news, he’d assured us he wouldn’t miss any training, let alone a match.

This was catastrophically bad timing.

Sinead glanced at our reserve Keeper, Sophie, who gave her the smallest of nods. She then turned back to Alfie.

“Go,” she said. “We’ll be fine. You should be at the hospital.”

“But – this is the title decider-”

“And there’s no chance you’ll have your mind on the game if you play. You’ll be absolutely no use to any of us. Trust me, we’ll be fine.”

“We’ll win it for the baby,” Sophie vowed.

His replacement’s reassurance seemed to clinch it for him.

“You’ll all do great,” he said, looking round the room. “Whatever the result, I know you won’t let us down. Thank you, Sinead, thank you so much...”

And then he was gone.

“Well, as if that doesn’t put the cat amongst the pixies,” Sinead sighed. “Sophie, you know your role, right?”

“Right,” she affirmed with a nod. It was in preparation for this kind of situation that she trained alongside Alfie every week, practicing the same plays he did. She’d been in the game for a long time, and this kind of situation no longer fazed her.

“Good stuff. Della, you’ll be captain today. Kit up, guys!” She clapped her hands once and we all leapt into action at the cracking sound.

The initial shock of Alfie’s unavailability had passed, but I was still far from calm. Sophie was a very good player who only played so few matches because Alfie was the captain, so our team hadn’t actually been made much weaker.

But Alfie was more than just the captain on the pitch. He held us together off it, and always knew the right words to say. Of course Sinead had been right to let him go; his mind wouldn’t have been on the match if he’d played. But now, we had to play our most important game of the season without him.

Mere minutes later, we faced another problem.

Sinead called us into a huddle in the middle of the room once we’d changed, and gave us a pep talk as usual. She then turned to look at Della, to make her own speech as captain – and that was when we realised she wasn’t there.

“Where’s she gone?” Sinead said frantically. “She was here a moment ago!”

We all looked round the changing room in bemusement, but she was nowhere to be seen.

“I don’t know where she could be,” Klaus mused. “I’ll go and look for her, if you want-”

“No,” Ryan interrupted, a look of comprehension on his face. “Jim and I can look for her.”

“We can?” I said unsurely. I didn’t know how he expected us to find her; I had no idea where she might be, or why she might have vanished.

But it became clear as Ryan pulled me out of the changing room, not through the main door to the corridor but towards the showers, that he knew the answer to both those questions. But then, that really shouldn’t have been a surprise.

One of the showers was running. Given everyone else was in the changing room behind us, it wasn’t hard to figure out who’d turned it on.

She was sitting on the floor in the third stall to the right, the one she always used after a match because it was apparently the hottest. Her knees were drawn up underneath her chin, and she was hugging herself tightly, staring at the other side of the stall, apparently oblivious to the water that was cascading over her head and shoulders. She’d changed into the top and leggings she always wore underneath her Quidditch gear, but her protective clothing and robes lay in a heap on the floor next to her, as soaked through as she was.

Ryan glanced uncertainly at me, then leaned forwards and turned the shower off. Only then did she even realise we were there.

“You alright?” he asked her gently, crouching down beside her. I remained where I was; I had no idea what to do.

Her lips moved, but no sound came out. She cleared her throat slightly, then tried again.

“I’m captain...” Her voice was barely more than a whisper.

And then things clicked into place.

Ryan glanced up at me, presumably to see if I was going to say something, but I shook my head and gestured back at him, indicating he should be the one to talk. I might have done an alright job at reassuring Jake the other week, but this was totally different. Della was nearly five years older than me, and I’d watched her play for Germany when I was still at Hogwarts. I had idea how to reassure such a senior player. Besides, this was something I had less experience about. I knew how to give advice about making a professional debut, because I’d been there myself. I’d only ever captained my house team, and this was about ten steps up from that.

I knew Ryan had little more experience on that front than I did, and that Della was senior to him as well. But he knew her better than I did. He had to, given the amount of attention he paid her. And he’d already twigged, not just that there was something wrong, but exactly what that something was.

“I can’t do this,” she said in a strangled voice. “How the hell am I meant to be captain? I – I’m not Alf-”

“Of course you’re not,” Ryan said. “But we don’t want you to be Alfie. We want you to be you.”

Even as he spoke, she was shaking her head.

“But Ry, I can’t captain, I – I’ve only captained once before!”

“What are you on about? You captain me and Junior all the time!”

“But that’s different! There’s only two of you-”

He shrugged.

“So there’s four more people. It’s the same thing-”

“But ... how am I supposed to keep track of everything that happens, how everyone’s playing, what the score is-”

“You don’t need to do that!” he reassured her. “How are you meant to play your own game if you’ve got your eye on everyone else? You think Alfie always knows exactly what Cato and Cleo are doing when he’s Keeping? Of course he doesn’t! He concentrates on his own job first and foremost. That’s why we need a Chaser captain, isn’t it?”

“But ... I don’t know what I should do-”

He reached out and turned her face up towards his.

“The other four don’t need you to do their jobs for them. They don’t need you to help them do their jobs. What they need – what we all need – is for you to tell us we can do our jobs. That’s why you’re captain. People look up to you, they listen to every word you say, and more importantly they believe what you say. We all know we can do our jobs, but if we know that you believe in us, then we’ll fly out there knowing that we will do our jobs, and we’ll win this damn Cup.”

She shook her head slightly, though this was made more difficult by the fact Ryan was still holding her face.

“Don’t be stupid, why would a few words from me make them feel that?”

“Because they respect you. They value your opinion. They – we – love you. You mean a lot to all of us, of course a word or two of encouragement from you will help!” He raised his other arm, and took her face in his hands. “We need someone to hold us together. To be there on the pitch with words of encouragement in case things go wrong. To remind us we’re a team, not just a bunch of players. We need you to be you. Nothing more, nothing less. And I know you’ll do an amazing job.”

He leaned forwards slightly, and planted a kiss on her forehead. I shifted slightly from one foot to the other, feeling like an uninvited onlooker to a private conversation.

But he’d said all he thought he needed to say. He dropped his arms and took her hands in his. Then he rose to his feet and pulled her upright with him.

“Come here, let’s get you dry.” He pulled his wand from the holster attached to his wrist. It was a good thing some players liked to keep their wands on them at all times, I realised, as it would at least save Della the embarrassment heading back into the changing rooms soaking wet.

Once Ryan had dried her off, he turned his attention to her kit, while she turned to face me, looking slightly sheepish.

“I – I’m sorry, Jim-” she began.

I smiled at her, trying out a bit of reassurance of my own.

“It’s okay. Being scared is only human, right?”

She frowned slightly, as she looked up at me.

“Are you scared?” she asked.

“A little bit,” I confessed.

She returned my smile with one of her own, and placed a comforting hand on my arm.

“You’ll be fine, Junior. You always are.”

My grin widened.

“And so will you.”

***

Mum was wrong about a Friday match putting off the crowds. It might be a working day, but the stand was fuller than I’d seen it all season. As I flew around the pitch to loosen up, I noticed numerous familiar faces. These included the families of most of the squad, several people I knew from Hogwarts, including Allegra Fawcett and a couple of her friends from Ravenclaw, and a large contingency of journalists. I scowled when I saw Deirdre, the reporter who’d pissed me off in the Atrium all those weeks ago.

The Lynches were looking particularly large and menacing today. Seeing me glance at them, Feargus returned the look and cracked his knuckles threateningly. He wouldn’t look so menacing once Cato and Cleo were done with him, I thought with satisfaction. Seeing his arrogance gave me more determination to get my part of the Pincer right.

The plan was for Ryan to go in for the block at the start, making it look as though we were challenging for the Quaffle as they’d expect us to. That would give the Lynches enough time to split up, giving us the space to block Eoin effectively. We didn’t want to give our tactic away too soon, and if we didn’t at least act as if trying for the Quaffle, the Bats would twig straight away that something was afoot.

If we pulled this off, we’d be the talk of the Quidditch community for weeks, for both good and bad.

Or at least, we probably would be if the World Cup draw wasn’t to happen in twenty-four hours’ time..

Della beckoned the rest of us towards her. I slipped into the huddle between Cleo and Stefan, glad that the arm Cleo had thrown round my shoulders wasn’t the one with her bat at the end of it.

Della looked a completely different person from the one hiding in the shower cubicle half an hour before. She seemed confident, determined and ready for action, and I was bloody glad I was on her team and not the opposing one.

“We can do this,” she told us firmly. “We will do this. For Alfie, and Elodie. For each other. And for Sinead, who’s been pulled so much of her hair out this season, it’s a wonder she has any left.”

There were wry grins all round.

“I can’t think of a better bunch of people to put my body on the line for – though there’ll be less need for that this match, once we’ve carried out Plan A.”

From the way she said it, I could tell she wasn’t just trying to make us feel better. She genuinely thought we could pull this crazy, controversial, near-impossible plan off.

Maybe we could. Maybe this barmy idea of mine would actually pay off.

The Bats players had assembled, ready to begin, and the referee was standing on the ground beside the crate of balls with his broomstick in his hand, waiting for us to do likewise. I got into position, and glanced at their players. Their Head Chaser and captain Fiona O’Sullivan glanced at me indifferently – I knew she’d be friendly later, but for now her head was firmly in the game. Aisling Quigley went a step further and shot me a sly wink. In a way, this kind of inter-team camaraderie was nice, and meant the sport was played in its true manner. But it also made competing hard, because it meant inflicting defeat upon friends.

Then I found the Lynch brothers, and any hesitation about beating the Bats was forgotten.

The referee kicked the crate open. The Bludgers shot upwards, straight past us. The Snitch was also gone in a trice; I noticed both Seekers following its trajectory. The referee threw the Quaffle into the air and blew his whistle – and we were off.

Feargus Lynch immediately flew up to meet one of the Bludgers, which had now noticed it had targets and was heading back down towards us. Eoin headed towards the other Bludger, but Cleo had already commandeered it. Ryan and Della dived in for the Quaffle, and I headed off to the left of the pitch as I often did at the start of the match.

The Bats won the Quaffle, and immediately headed up the pitch towards Sophie and the posts. We made as if to follow them, Della taking the right flank and Ryan steaming up the middle – but then we diverted.

We had to make sure we didn’t look as if we were flying directly at Eoin. This was relatively easy for Della and me; we could just head a few yards to his left and right, and position ourselves so as to block his peripheral vision. Ryan had the hardest job. He’d been lumped with it because being the broadest meant he’d be most effective. But if he flew straight at his target, he’d be penalised for blatching, flying towards another player in an attempt to collide with him. Even though Ryan didn’t mean to hit Eoin, it would look as if he did.

So he couldn’t get to his destination in one straight line. Instead, while Della and I headed to spots level with and at either side of Eoin, Ryan headed low, to a spot a few feet below and just in front of him. Once there, he shot upright, stopping directly level with Eoin, just as Della and I reached our spots. Then the three of us edged towards each other, closing the gaps and forming a barricade round him without having to fly directly at him.

It all happened within moments, and by the time he realised what we’d done, it was too late. Feargus had hit his Bludger towards Stefan just as we reached Eoin, meaning that he had no defence of his own, save his bat.

And then Cleo struck.

The Bludger sailed towards Feargus from behind. He sensed the ball of iron speeding towards him, but his surprise stalled him for a split second. We’d been banking on this; Beaters rarely considered the possibility of a Bludger heading towards them, as they only headed where they were directed and Beaters were rarely the target. He pulled off to the side, but didn’t manage to get completely out of the Bludger’s range.

The Bludger hit him in the arm, knocking the bat from his hand. But he stayed on his broom.

Our human barrier had now broken up and Eoin was streaking across the pitch to take control of the Bludger which Cleo had hit. My heart sinking at the failure of our tactic, I turned my attention to the Chasers, who were hovering round the hoops and taking it in turns to shoot. Once she’d made a save, all Sophie could do was throw the Quaffle out into midair, where the Bats Chasers were recovering it and taking another shot. She’d saved most of them but we’d conceded four goals already-

The crowd erupted in a mixture of screams and cheers. I spun round to see Feargus Lynch falling to the floor. The referee drew his wand and slowed his fall with remarkable rapidity, simultaneously blowing his whistle to halt the game, rendering Fiona O’Sullivan’s scream of “TIME OUT!” pointless.

And there, his arms still in the follow-through position, hovered Cato, a triumphant grin on his face. He’d cracked the Bludger Feargus had aimed at Stefan right back at him with unerring accuracy and strength.

I couldn’t prevent a grin stretching across my face as we formed a six-person huddle.

“Amazing!” Della cried jubilantly. “Fantastic! I thought we’d blown our chance for a second – was that your plan all along, to get him with two shots?”

“Course it was!” Cato beamed. Not that he or Cleo would admit anything else, of course. “Want us to flatten their Seeker next?”

Della paused for a second, then shook her head.

“No,” she said.

Cato and Cleo shot her bewildered looks, but Sophie looked satisfied with the answer.

“Are you mad?” Cleo said. “We could have them on the ropes! With their Seeker out, we’ll as good as guarantee a win-”

“No,” Della repeated. “This is enough. Lynch can’t go on the offensive against Stefan, that’s all we needed to achieve. If we take out a second player, our tactics will really be questioned, and I don’t want people to consider this a hollow victory for us. If we’re going to win, it’ll be fair and square. We’ve given the Lynches a taste of their own medicine, that’s enough. Stefan’s good enough to win his fight without outside help. From now on, we play our natural game. You two do what you think is necessary, but no brutality. Knock their kid off course, but don’t knock him off. We good?”

She received five nods in response.

“Marvellous. Soph, good job there, they could have pulled ahead by a fair few. Sorry to put you in that situation-”

She shrugged.

“Paid off in the end, didn’t it? Just make sure you get those goals back!”

“If Stef performs his task like he’s meant to, we won’t need to.” Della still had a huge grin plastered across her face. “Good luck, team, see you when we win.”

We split up, Sophie heading back to the posts and Cato and Cleo speeding off to take control of the Bludgers. The other huddle broke up moments later and their players took their own positions, looking shaken but still determined. I felt much more confident than I had at the beginning of the match. It felt as though the pressure was really off; the game was now in the Seekers’ hands, quite literally, and that gave us Chasers free rein to play.

I loved that type of game.

Della seized control of the Quaffle once we restarted and she headed straight up the pitch, Aisling in hot pursuit. I stayed to her left, while Ryan dropped down below us. Lynch hit a Bludger towards us; Della ducked it, I swerved left, and it sailed straight past us into Cleo’s awaiting bat, which redirected it towards their defending Chasers. They were forced to scatter, leaving the air between us and their Keeper open. Della pulled her arm back to aim, but their Keeper was one step ahead of her, and instead of lunging for where she aimed, he dropped low, to intercept the shot from Ryan.

Except that Della was a couple more steps ahead of him, and instead of executing a Porskoff Ploy, she whipped the Quaffle out to me.

While her arm was still behind her back. I didn’t even have to move; the Quaffle sailed straight towards my outstretched hand.

How did she do that?

I shook my head, pushed that thought to the back of my mind, and sent the Quaffle sailing through the unguarded left-hand hoop. We’d clawed one goal back already, and with that our confidence levels rose.

Of course, with the game effectively being played out solely between the Seekers, the pressure was off their Chasers too. And with two Irish internationals who knew Ryan’s play intricately, they were a formidable opposition. The result was an enthralling Chaser match-up for the neutral spectator as all six of us just stripped it all back and did what we did best. It meant lots of impressive saves, and equal amounts of spectacular goals.

It was enjoyable being part of it, and if it were the first match of the season I’d have thoroughly loved it. But as it was, while being fairly even on the scoreboard even after two hours didn’t necessarily matter, it did mean we couldn’t afford to let our guard down for one moment, and that Stefan still had to catch the Snitch if we were to win the Cup.

And all six of us definitely looked as though we’d been playing for two hours. Cato and Cleo had been primarily targeting the Bats’ Seeker, trying to distract him from his search for the Snitch, but they’d also aimed the Bludgers at the Chasers, who, without a second Beater to guard them, had been forced to abort some of their most successful moves to avoid being struck, and even then the Bagmans had scored a fair few hits. This was the only reason we were edging the match by forty points.

Of course, Eoin Lynch was primarily guarding his Seeker from the Bludgers, but he was making sure to take advantage of any opportunities to hit them away, and was aiming them right back at us. That was where our Beater advantage was paying off most, but despite the extra protection I’d still copped a blow to the left leg. Luckily it was below the knee, so I could still grip the broom with both legs and didn’t need a hand on the broom, but it was painful and made me feel slightly unbalanced all the same. Della was bleeding from the arm, and Ryan had picked up the same injury I had in our first match, and was playing with broken fingers on his right hand.

But we played on. And we’d keep playing, until that Snitch was caught.

I just wished Stefan would get a bloody move on.

Aisling scored. They were now thirty points behind. Sophie shook her head in disappointment but collected the Quaffle and passed it out to Ryan. He took it in his good hand and headed up the pitch, offloading to Della as soon as he could.

And then the crowd let out a collective gasp.

The hardest part about playing Quidditch was ignoring the Seekers. Most of the time it was easy, but if one or both of them went into a dive or there was a high-speed chase across the pitch, it was hard to keep focused on the Quaffle. It was crucial to do just that though. Numerous matches had come down to one or two goals scored by the eventual winning team while the opposition was preoccupied with watching the Seekers.

This time, we all stopped. This play could well decide the Quidditch Cup, and none of us could tear our eyes away from it.

Both Seekers were diving towards the ground at a ridiculously high speed. People said Seekers had to be light, fast, observant and able to fly with just their knees. Personally I thought those people forgot an extra element, that of complete and utter madness. Who else would willingly plunge towards the ground at top speeds in pursuit of a tiny metal ball? Nevertheless, that was where Stefan and their Seeker were both headed. I didn’t even know if they were actually chasing the Snitch; my eyesight wasn’t good enough to see it, and Stefan was as gifted at Wronski Feints as his father Viktor had been. He was slightly in the lead, which lent credibility to the possibility he was bluffing but also put him in a favourable position if he was chasing the Snitch, but the Bats’ Seeker was lighter and faster, and was making ground on him. They drew level ... the Bats’ Seeker pulled ahead ... they were within feet of the ground...

And then Stefan veered off sharply to the right. The Bats’ Seeker tried to do likewise, but spun out ever so slightly. It was a tiny error, but a costly one, a cost which became fully apparent when Stefan pulled up seconds later, both arms raised in triumph, and one fist clenched as though holding a struggling Snitch captive...

The referee blew his whistle to end the match.

And then the whole place erupted.

Within seconds Stefan was mobbed by Ryan and Sophie. I headed at full speed towards them and collided with Cato as we both reached the growing huddle, but we didn’t care, nobody cared, because we’d just won the Cup; we were all screaming and yelling and cheering, our exclamations all intermingled and unintelligible aside from Ryan’s loud swearing.

We reached the ground, and Alfie was the first to reach us, screaming “It’s a girl!” followed by “We’ve bloody won!” Then Roxanne leapt at us, clinging onto Ryan’s back, and Klaus wrapped his arms round Della and smacked a kiss on her cheek, and then the rest of the squad joined us, all whooping and hollering, and Sinead was there too, in floods of tears as she embraced her son.

The rest of the crowd spilled onto the pitch, waving Falcons scarves in the air in celebration; I could see Dad, and Al, and Lily, and Freddie, and Brigid, and little Dora, all heading towards us-

But Carlotta got there first, and threw her arms around my neck in jubilation, crying and laughing at the same time. And although I’d just helped win a third consecutive Quidditch League, my main source of happiness as I picked her up and swung her round in circles was that she was celebrating the victory of a team she’d only known about for five months, as though it was the best thing that had ever happened to her.

 


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