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Off the Rails by water_lily43175
Chapter 51 : fifty-one
 
Rating: MatureChapter Reviews: 7


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“There’s been some interest in you for a short term deal,” Brigid told me the next morning over a mug of coffee. “It’s slightly unusual; teams normally wait for agents to announce a player’s availability, rather than making the first move. Clearly these clubs really want you.”

“Which clubs?” I asked curiously.

“The Harriers, again. And the Vratsa Vultures and the Stuttgart Snidgets.”

“The Vultures, huh?” The Bulgarian team were even better than the Harriers, and were hot favourites for the triennial European Cup that would take place next year. The Falcons’ league win meant we’d also qualified for that competition, and I was immensely excited about playing against the likes of the Vultures, Snidgets and Harriers. It was amazing to think the Bulgarian team, Stefan’s home team, wanted me playing for them for a few months.

“And if you’re interested in going outside Europe, then the Warriors and the Thunderers in Australia are both interested, and some Uruguayan and Peruvian clubs have asked about you as well. You’ve got a few options available to you.”

“It would be pretty cool to play for the Vultures,” I mused. “But I don’t think that’s a good idea with the European Cup next year; they’ll pick up on my weaknesses.”

“Jim, you can go where you want to go, darl, you don’t need to think about the Falcons all the time.”

“I know.” I paused. “I just think ... if I’m going to have some time abroad, I guess I want it to be properly abroad. Not that Europe isn’t, of course,” I added, “but ... it would be awesome to play in Australia, or Uruguay – they’re the best players in the world, and I’d be playing alongside them. Pretty much all European sides play Quidditch the same way, but they go about their game differently in Australia and South America, maybe that would be a more worthwhile experience for me?”

“It’s your call.” She shrugged. “Just bear in mind that the further away you go, the harder it will be for people to visit you. The only way to travel that kind of distance is with an international Portkey, and the Ministry don’t give those out willy-nilly.”

“I know, but I’d only be away a few months, just from September through to the end of November-”

“You’d be away for your birthday,” she put in quietly.

It was my turn to shrug.

“I’ve had twenty-one birthdays with friends and family, I’m sure I could sacrifice my twenty-second for my career-”

But I’d miss Carlotta’s birthday in November as well.

Carlotta.

Shit.

“Is it easier to get Portkeys to Europe?”

“Much easier. International agreements and smaller distances mean there’s a lot less paperwork and assessment involved. You could even Floo-jump it if you wanted to, although that’s only really worthwhile when travelling across Western Europe. I wouldn’t do it right across the continent; it’d take far too long.”

Floo-jumping was when someone took a journey by Floo that was too long to do in one hop. Generally people used public fireplaces, such as those at the Leaky Cauldron and the Three Broomsticks, for this. It was one of the reasons wizarding pubs thrived. But Brigid was right; I couldn’t imagine Floo-jumping from London to Bulgaria. And Carlotta hadn’t even used Floo powder before. It didn’t seem an overly viable option.

“Can you give me a bit more time to think about it?” I asked.

“Take as much time as you like, I’m not in any rush,” she said. “The only reason you might want to decide sooner rather than later is to make sure the best teams don’t pick other players instead. But you could definitely leave it a few weeks.”

“I’ll do that, then,” I said. “Cheers, Brie.”

“No problem. That’s my job, isn’t it?” She smiled. “Oh, we also need to talk about your Falcons contract as well. You’ve still not extended it, and it finishes at the end of this year! I assume you want to stay there, given you’ve not told me otherwise?”

“Course I do!”

“I should think so too.” Her grin widened. “Not that I’m biased, of course. Now, Mum’s pushing to extend it, so you’d be on the same terms you’re on now. She’s actually given me a copy of it for you to sign. But ... I don’t think you should sign right now.”

I frowned, my hand already half-way across the table to take the contract.

“Why not?”

“I think you should wait until Demelza Robins decides who to pick. Because...” She took a deep breath. “She’s told me you’re one of the people she’s looking at. If she picks you, your stock will rise massively, clubs will be willing to pay a lot to secure your signature. You’d have a lot of bargaining power and could easily get yourself a pay rise.”

I frowned again.

“Are you working against your own mother here?”

“When I’m an agent, she’s not my mother! I have to look out for my players first and foremost. It’s not all niceties in this sport, you know. So, I say we hold back a bit, wait until Demelza makes her mind up. If she doesn’t go for you, then you can sign the extension contract. If she does pick you, I’ll draw up some more favourable terms-”

“But I don’t want more money,” I said bluntly.

Now her brow furrowed.

“Are you sure, James? I know you like it there, but remember; this is a job, not a hobby-”

“I don’t need any more money, though. I’m getting by perfectly fine living within my means at the moment; I already earn a decent packet. I’m not taking money from the Falcons coffers when I don’t need to. It can go towards keeping some of our other players – like Stefan, or Roxanne. I’ll just sign that extension; I don’t care whether or not I’m an England player-”

“You’ll have to wait until Demelza makes her decision, because if she picks you we’ll need to change a few things even if your pay stays the same. But you definitely want to stay at the Falcons?”

“Of course I do, stop asking silly questions.”

Brigid smiled.

“Mum will be happy to hear that.”

“Didn’t take long for you to become her daughter again,” I smirked.

***

I almost wished Brigid hadn’t told me that I was one of the possibilities to replace Josh Wadcock. I’d been thinking about it enough beforehand, but now there was barely a waking moment when I wasn’t wondering if I’d make the squad. I couldn’t even escape the topic in my sleep, having dreamed of playing for England for the last two nights.

Luckily, Lily provided a bit of respite mid-week when she asked for help moving her things out of her boarding house at her school. Given that I was hardly busy, I offered up my services – as did Mum, who could work whenever she wanted to these days. I managed to scrounge breakfast at Mum and Dad’s that morning, before she drove us down to Lily’s school.

“This always seems like so much effort, given that we could just Apparate with all her stuff,” I sighed. “In fact, she could probably squeeze it all into the bag Aunt Hermione did the Undetectable Extension Charm on-”

“No, she couldn’t, because I didn’t let her take it to school,” Mum cut in firmly. “It’d be far too risky to leave something like that lying around. And you know why we can’t ‘just Apparate’; she may be leaving the school but that doesn’t mean we can become frivolous about the Statute. Moving her into her flat will be an entirely different story though; I have absolutely no ambitions to drive into London.”

“Do you not think that’s being frivolous about the Statute?” I grinned cheekily.

“Oh, pipe down,” she said, but she smiled all the same. “We just need to make sure we don’t pick the same day Maddie moves in. I’m not sure what her family would make of us appearing out of thin air and pulling furniture out of our pockets.”

“Yeah, that might not go down too well,” I agreed. “When do they get the flat?”

“Beginning of August. Lily should know by then whether she’s gotten the Liaison job; she’ll know her N.E.W.T results by this time next week.”

“When does she get her Muggle grades?”

“Not for another month and a half; how ridiculous is that? Surely they can release the grades earlier than that...” She sighed. “Never mind. The Ministry don’t require any Muggle grades at all for the Liaison job, those are just an added bonus for her. So long as she gets the O in Muggle Studies and As in her other four N.E.W.Ts, she’s fine.”

I frowned.

“She may as well have just not bothered with the Muggle exams, then-”

“Hardly,” Mum said. “What would she do if she didn’t get the Liaison job, and didn’t have any Muggle qualifications to show for herself? If she gets this job, she’ll be very lucky to be working for a wizarding employer. Most Squibs have to settle for living solely in the Muggle world. Actually, it’s doing her a disservice to say she’s lucky; it’s down to one hell of a lot of hard work and ambition on her part.”

“I knew what you meant, though,” I said. “She’s lucky there are jobs within the wizarding world available to her, if she has the right qualifications.”

“Precisely.” Mum smiled. “The job certainly won’t be a walk in the park though; the current Muggle Prime Minister seems particularly anti-wizard.”

“Really?” I asked sharply. I didn’t often keep up with current affairs.

“Unfortunately so,” she sighed. “He’s been in power for about a year now. According to Kingsley he was very shocked and scared to find out about us – more than usual. He was fairly quiet or so for about a year, but recently he’s been stepping up his agenda slightly. Only little things, of course, it’s not as though there’s much he can do, but he’s trying to be as uncooperative as possible. Which is proving troublesome given that the Ministry needed to get his permission before letting foreign Quidditch players into the country for the World Cup.”

“But surely the previous Prime Minister gave that permission when she approved the bid to host it?”

“Yes, but they still had to get the current guy’s as well,” she explained.

“I don’t get how he can be anti-magic, though,” I mused, looking out of the window at the countryside that rushed past. “Surely Muggle society’s learnt prejudice never brings about good results, just as ours has?”

“Yes, but ... they’ll only learn from the prejudices they’ve already experienced. If that makes sense. In the last hundred years Muggles have seen uprisings and wars caused by religious and racial prejudice. They might have a better attitude towards those minority groups nowadays, but it doesn’t automatically stop persecution against all minority groups, unfortunately. There’s no reason whatsoever to assume their politicians should accept magic with open arms. It’s fear, James, fear of the unknown that drives this prejudice. A fear of this entire parallel world that exists alongside theirs, and yet remains completely in the dark. We try to stay out of their way, but they don’t know that, do they? All the Prime Minister knows is that he’s just been made aware of an entire society that was kept from him his whole life. They fear us as a threat and resent the way we keep ourselves to ourselves instead of offering magical solutions to all their problems. It’s the age-old story, and it’s exactly why we went into hiding all those years ago. It’s not necessarily us he has a problem with; it’s the way we hide.”

“Well ... what does he expect us to do? Announce ourselves to the world and start being burned at the stake again?” I shook my head incredulously. “Although ... I suppose we could make our medicine available to them, if they knew about us...”

Her expression softened.

“Are you thinking about Carlotta?” she said gently. “Your father told me about her last weekend.” She sighed, and squeezed my leg gently. “I wish there was something we could do to help, sweetie, I really do.”

“But there are things that would help; things that would ease her symptoms better than their medicine does-”

“But she could only take them if we stopped hiding from the Muggle world,” Mum finished. “I know, Jimmy, I know.”

“Or if she stopped being treated by Muggles,” I added.

“It’s a Muggle illness, and she’s a Muggle living in the Muggle world. It wouldn’t be fair or practical, you know that.”

“I just ... I feel useless, like I can’t help, and it feels so unfair, that we can do so much and yet we can’t help her-”

“You can help her. Just because you can’t cure her, doesn’t mean you can’t be there for her in other ways.”

“I know, and I’ve told her that myself, that I want to help her any way I can ... it just sucks a bit when I know she hasn’t changed her opinion on how she’s going to deal with it, she just backed down because she knew I wouldn’t.”

“If she didn’t want to be with you, she’d have made that very clear. She does, and that’s all that matters for now. In time, she’ll learn to stop letting other people – or things – dictate her life for her. And you’ll be part of the reason for that.”

That thought caused me to smile slightly.

Mum slowed down as we reached Lily’s school’s premises. Her building was on the opposite side of the grounds to the entrance gate, so we had to drive round the lane that ran the perimeter of the school.

“It’s weird, to think she’s leaving here,” Mum said slowly. “I remember her first day here. Poor thing,” she added. “She was so cut up about not being able to go to Hogwarts with you and Al and Hugo. And look at her now ... Head Girl, about to work for the government-” She paused. “My only daughter ended up Head Girl, and she’s now going to work for the Ministry. Remind me why I’m proud of her?”

I let out a laugh.

“You’d better not say that to her face, she’ll think you actually mean it,” I suggested.

“Are you kidding? Her reaction to finding out she was Head Girl was to ask if she was really our child. Your father and I weren’t even prefects. Al getting his prefect badge was one thing, but Lily basically being given control of the entire student body? Madness.”

“To be fair, you don’t have to look too far back to find the nearest rule-abiding family members; both sets of grandparents were Head Boy and Girl,” I reasoned. “Maybe we’re the adopted ones?”

“Well, there is that,” she admitted, “although your dad still swears he hasn’t a clue how his dad got the badge, given that he was one of the biggest troublemakers around. But I’m well aware my mother was very disappointed I didn’t get the prefect’s badge. Fred and George not being prefects was more than understandable, but Charlie always was more interested in animals and broomsticks than people and even he was a Prefect. For the first Weasley girl in generations not to get a badge...”

“Was probably for the best, given all the Bat Bogey hexes you cast on people,” I finished.

“You’ve listened to too many of your father’s stories; he always does me a disservice.”

Lily was waiting for us outside her boarding house, which was a hive of activity; it seemed as though most of her year had decided to leave on the same day.

“I was wondering when you’d get here,” she said by way of a greeting. “I was beginning to think I’d need to make a nuisance of myself to save you a space.”

“I don’t suppose you’ve made a start on packing, have you?” was Mum’s reply.

Lily looked guilty.

“I was kind of hoping you’d do it...”

Mum sighed.

“We’ll see,” she said.

But we got to the room Lily and Maddie shared to find Maddie’s family already there. Lily’s face fell slightly; she knew as well as anyone that Mum couldn’t magically pack her things in front of the Bennetts. Instead, she’d have to do the job manually. She reluctantly opened a suitcase on her bed and started throwing clothes into it willy-nilly, amidst Mum’s remonstrations.

“Lily, if you folded things, you’d fit twice as much in-”

I snickered, and glanced round the room. My eyes fell on the wardrobe, magically enlarged inside to act as our Apparition point for the last two years, and it crossed my mind that we could just dump some of Lily’s things in there to collect later. I wordlessly gestured this idea to Mum, who shook her head.

“I need to shrink it back before we leave,” she murmured in my ear when she had a chance.

I pulled a face as I realised we’d have to do all this the Muggle way. Still, at least I could pop a cheeky feather-light charm on Lily’s cases to make them easier to carry down the stairs.

Seeming to guess what I was thinking, Mum shook her head again.

“Too risky; someone else might pick it up and get suspicious!” she pointed out.

I hated having to pretend to be non-magical.

When Maddie’s family left the room to take some of her things downstairs, Maddie quickly darted through the archway into Lily’s room, clutching Lily’s Quaffle and a few Chocolate Frogs.

“Lil, there’s loads of your things in my room, quick, grab them before they come back!”

We all leapt into action, pulling things out of hiding places that Maddie had had to find last-minute.

“Lottie found the washing machine manual, even that got her suspicious! I was so worried they’d find the Frogs, I thought they’d probably be the biggest giveaway; at least I could have a go at trying to explain the Quaffle away, but leaping chocolate goes completely beyond the realms of Muggle possibility.”

“Mum, can you pack for me now?” Lily pleaded.

“And what will Maddie’s family think if you’ve gone from barely started to being packed in a matter of minutes-”

“They won’t even notice, Mum, just do it, please!”

She sighed reluctantly, and drew her wand.

Pack!” she cried, waving her wand in a sweeping motion.

Lily’s other cases leapt into action, opening themselves up to receive the clothes, shoes and books that flew into them. Things emerged from drawers, cupboards and under the furniture to settle in a case, the last of which shut with a dull thump just as Robbie returned.

“I nearly bumped into Rosalind!” he hissed, shutting the door behind him.

“Well, that’s your fault,” Maddie said unsympathetically. “Lils, have you got my hockey boots? I can’t see them.”

Lily and I looked at each other, then at the cases.

“I’ll let you look,” I said, falling into her desk chair.

Lily turned round to glare at Mum.

“If you try turning this into an ‘I told you so’...”

“Would I?” Mum said innocently.

The offending boots were uncovered in the second case, and Maddie was nearly packed by the time Lily found them. As some of Maddie’s things had already gone downstairs, Robbie was free to take one of Lily’s cases, which meant we managed to get everything downstairs in one trip. Mum held back slightly under the pretence she’d dropped her lipstick; in reality she was fixing the wardrobe Dad had originally enlarged. I wondered now whether he was supposed to have told the Ministry what he’d done, and whether he actually had. I suspected I already knew the answers to both.

“It’s going to be weird, leaving here,” Lily mused, as she and Maddie stood outside their building for one last time. I knew exactly how they felt, having gone through the same thought process when leaving Hogwarts.

“Now I don’t have an excuse to come back here any more,” Maddie’s sister Lottie sighed, stuffing her hands into her pockets. “Not until we have kids, at any rate.”

“Speak for yourself,” Maddie replied dryly. “Reckon we need to go and say goodbye to Mr and Mrs A?”

They glanced round at Kit’s parents’ house, which wasn’t far from their boarding house. There was already a throng of people gathered outside it, presumably other students saying their last goodbyes to the teacher who’d marshalled them through their first years.

“It’s not exactly as though we won’t see them again, is it?” Lily pointed out. “Three weeks’ time, when we move into the flat.”

“I think they’d still be upset if you didn’t say thank you,” Lottie reasoned. “Especially given the way they’ve favoured you over the years.”

“They didn’t favour us-” Maddie began.

“It’s because we’re Kit’s friends-” Lily added.

“Even so, you had tea and scones round there nearly every Sunday! I think that warrants some kind of thanks, don’t you?”

They both shifted slightly.

“Yeah, probably,” Lily admitted.

“And I’d like to say a few words to her as well,” Mum added, having joined us. “Still, we can wait until the main crowd has gone.”

“Fancy a quick game of tennis, Lil, for old times’ sake?” Maddie asked. “My racket’s loose, we can play as we are-”

“Sounds good.” Lily opened the car door and pulled her racket out, as Maddie rounded the car to get to her own.

“I’ll umpire,” Lottie volunteered, and followed the other two round the building.

Mum and Mrs Bennett headed back into the boarding house to make a cup of tea in the kitchen, and Robbie and I headed round to the tennis courts to watch the girls.

“So, what job has Lily got?” he asked me. “Maddie says it’s something to do with the civil service...”

“Yeah, pretty much.” I shrugged.

“She’s pretty lucky to walk into something like that straight out of school.”

“She has the right attributes and qualifications for the job.” I shifted slightly from one foot to the other. “Besides, she’s not quite got it yet; it depends on how her exam results turn out.”

“Maddie said she’d be starting at the beginning of August.” He frowned. “The results don’t come out until the middle of the month.”

“The government gets them earlier,” I bluffed, hoping he’d believe it.

Luckily, he seemed to be convinced, as he moved on from that topic.

 “Who was the guy she went to the prom with?”

“Friend of mine,” I replied quickly. “Why?”

“He seemed to spend a lot of time with Maddie,” he commented coolly.

“He did, didn’t he?” I frowned, thinking over the night and how much of it Maddie and Cato had spent talking or dancing – quite a lot of it, in fact. “I guess they get on well.”

Actually, now I thought of it, they’d gotten on ridiculously well. Just how much time had they spent talking at Quidditch matches, when I’d been preoccupied with Carlotta?

I posed the question to Lily later, after she’d lost a reasonably tight set to Maddie and they’d called it a day.

“Yeah, they talk all the time,” she said in an offhand tone. “Don’t you remember, you were there the first time they met, after the first match of the season-”

“Yeah, that was the match where Carlotta was acting weird and left early, I was a bit preoccupied with that to be honest.” I frowned, trying to recall the conversation I’d joined Mum, Lily, Maddie and Cato in later that March afternoon. “I remember now; he forgot you were a Squib, didn’t he?”

“Yeah, and by the time he remembered, Maddie had already spouted off about the match in great detail.” She giggled. “The look on his face when he realised that this was a Muggle praising his Dopplebeater ... oh, that was priceless. She thought he’d think her a total freak for knowing so much about the sport, but instead he was pretty impressed. And he’s asked for her assessment after every match since. He likes the way she views the game with a different perspective, apparently. You know what she’s like; she watches it as a hockey player, she’s always trying to mesh the two where she can. So, yeah, they get on well. Which is why he was a good choice as my prom date. She gets on well with Ryan too, obviously, but given that he couldn’t make it, Cato was the best option you could’ve gone for.”

“Well, I’m glad you approved of your date.” I grinned. “You know, I’m surprised you haven’t brought up the whole England thing yet; everyone else I’ve seen since Sunday has shoehorned it into conversation.”

She shrugged.

“I figured you wouldn’t want to talk about it,” she said simply. “I can only imagine how torturous it must be right now, not knowing if you’ll be picked. You don’t need everyone asking you about it.”

I slung an arm round her shoulders and squeezed tightly.

“Thanks,” I said appreciatively, not sure what else to say.

“Of course,” she added, with a mischievous grin, “I still think you’re a shoo-in for the spot.”

I rolled my eyes, but grinned all the same.

***

“Do you think pumpkins go with fish?” Carlotta asked the moment she was through the door.

“I – I don’t know,” I said, bemused.

“No, neither do I. Which is why I’m going to give it a go. Where can I get a pumpkin from?”

“Diagon Alley’s the nearest place. Do you want me to pop down and get one?”

“Could – could I go?”

“What, with me? If you want-”

“No, by myself?”

I was slightly taken-aback.

“Well, sure; you can see the Leaky Cauldron now, it shouldn’t be a problem. You’ll find the place fairly easily, they set up fruit and veg stalls outside the shop. I’m not sure exactly how much it will be, but it shouldn’t be more than a few Sickles – here you go.” I handed her a few silver coins from my pocket. “Just remember, people greet Potters and Weasleys in the street as though they know us personally, so don’t get too alarmed if people recognise you and start talking to you, they don’t mean any harm.”

“Duly noted,” she said with a nod. “Although I’m not you, I don’t get paranoid every time someone talks to me-”

“Neither do I!” I protested, though mentally I had to concede she had a point. “I just thought I’d prepare you for the scary magical people. If they get too nosey, feel free to tell them to stop prying.”

“I’ll be fine, James,” she insisted, with a grin. “Back in a mo!”

It was only once she’d gone I remembered I’d wanted to see her reaction to Diagon Alley when sober, as I wasn’t entirely sure how much of it she’d remember from her outing to the Hinky last week. But I couldn’t be bothered to chase after her, so I just fell back into the comfy chair in the lounge to wait for her return.

She’d turned up as though it was just a casual visit, and had steered clear of That Subject, but I wasn’t an idiot. I knew exactly why she’d chosen today of all days to visit.

It was Friday. The end of the week. Demelza was yet to make an announcement, and England’s first game against Nigeria was just ten days away.

Today, surely, would be the day.

I wasn’t sure if Carlotta was here so she’d be the first to learn if I was called up, or to console me if I wasn’t. To be honest, I didn’t even mind which it was, except for the fact I was clearly hoping for a call up. Just the thought that she wanted to be here was enough.

It took her a full half hour to get back from Diagon Alley, armed with much more than just a pumpkin.

“I’m guessing I don’t have any change, then.”

She looked guilty.

“Oh, James, the shop was amazing, they had so much fantastic stuff! And the shopkeeper was so friendly, I told him I didn’t understand how many Knuts were in a Sickle and he helped me out with the money.”

“He probably just wanted to make a good sale.” I grinned, and followed her into the kitchen where she set her purchases down on the table. She’d bought not one pumpkin but two, along with a couple of bottles of Butterbeer, some elderflower wine, a packet of Drooble’s, some Fizzing Whizbees, a few Peppermint Toads and some self-shuffling playing cards. “Hang on – I only gave you eight Sickles...”

“I might have been gifted a few things,” she said sheepishly.

“I’ll say!” I examined the bottle of elderflower wine. “This stuff’s hardly cheap. Did you sweet-talk him or something?”

“No!” she protested. “I think he took pity on me because I’m a Muggle. It would have been patronising if I hadn’t got a bottle of wine out of it.”

I grinned.

And then my phone rang.


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