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Off the Rails by water_lily43175
Chapter 52 : fifty-two
 
Rating: MatureChapter Reviews: 11


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When I got to the Falcons’ ground, the first thing I noticed was the extra hoops. Eighteen of them, to be precise. Three more pitches surrounded the original, with changing rooms and small stands to match. The Department of Magical Games and Sports had clearly moved in to build the temporary pitches for the World Cup group to use as soon as the season had finished.

We weren’t the only club to be hosting matches. Puddlemere, Appleby Arrows, the Cannons and Wimbourne Wasps also played on large, mostly deserted moors which lent themselves to Quidditch, so their grounds were also being expanded accordingly. Only the Final would take place in the large purpose-built stadium.

I didn’t hover to look at the extra pitches though. Instead I headed straight for the small hut, inside which sat three women who between them held my entire Quidditch future in their hands.

Sinead, Brigid and Demelza were waiting for me in Sinead’s office, along with Keira. Sinead smiled slightly at me as I joined them, and gestured towards the fifth seat, which I duly sat in.

Keira’s smile was equally veiled, and Demelza merely nodded slightly in my direction.

But Brigid was outright beaming at me, an expression which told me exactly what the outcome of the conversation would be, before anybody even opened their mouths.

It was Demelza who spoke.

“As you know, we’ve unfortunately lost Josh Wadcock from our squad. I had to put a lot of thought into who to replace him with. Going by pure skill and aptitude, I’d have picked you straight away. But I have to consider more than that; I have to consider how well a player will cope mentally, how well he’ll link up with the other players, if he’ll be able to maintain the standards expected of an international player.”

She paused.

“I picked you initially, two months ago, and you disappointed me. I had to drop you. But I said then that I’d be willing to consider you again if you sorted things out. You missed a whole block of matches, a block in which your cousin really proved her worth as a player, and if she had more games underneath her belt I might be sitting here with her right now.”

I squirmed slightly in my seat.

“But she doesn’t. More importantly, when you did play, you were very impressive. The Cannons match was hardly a challenge, but you impressed me a lot against the Kestrels. You were forced into a role you’re not used to and you did a very good job. You performed well against the Bats as well, but given the match permutations, I’m not sure you had much personal pressure on your shoulders.

“But I knew you could do that; that’s why I picked you in the first place. No, I’m here now because of your attitude off the pitch. Keira’s been updating me regularly on your progress, and she’s spoken very highly of your attitude since being reinstated into the Falcons squad. Some players might return to their club just to get another shot at an England call up, but by all accounts you put your club first. I like that kind of attitude in a player. It shows you play for more than just fame or glory.

“Another thing I look for is someone who can think Quidditch. It’s all very well being able to throw a Quaffle, or hit a Bludger or catch a Snitch, but at the top level it takes much more than that. I like to see that a player understands all the nuances of the game, and can provide tactical input both before and during a match.”

She paused a second time, and allowed herself a slight smile.

“I’ll admit to enjoying your tactics last Friday, not least because it was amusing to see Feargus Lynch get knocked off his broom. It wasn’t necessarily sporting, but sometimes in sport you have to be brutal. I congratulated Cato and Cleo for the tactic at training on Monday and was very surprised to hear it wasn’t their idea, but their Chaser’s.” Her smile widened. “Thinking outside the box; I like that. I like that a lot.

“But that’s not what impressed me most about your attitude. I was amused to see Keira playing against the Cannons – although I knew it would happen; I knew you had to rest the twins. I didn’t necessarily expect to see her playing against the Kestrels though. Incidentally, for what it’s worth I’d have let the Bagmans play that one. But if they had, you’d have been denied your moment to shine.”

She gestured towards Keira, who edged forwards in her seat.

“I heard what you said to Jake when he was nervous about playing against the Kestrels,” she said. “I’d noticed his nerves, and was about to talk to him myself when you jumped in. And in the end you did the job far better than I could have.”

I remembered noticing her watching me when I’d talked to Jake. It hadn’t even crossed my mind that she’d have considered that chat worth taking to Demelza.

“I – I didn’t do it because you were there,” I said, wanting to articulate that thought. “I just noticed he was a bit freaked out and I wanted to help-”

“Exactly,” Keira interrupted with a smile. “You wanted to help another player. That’s the attitude that separates a good Quidditch player from a great one. Quidditch is a team game, and more people should remember that.”

I didn’t know what to say. I glanced round at Sinead, whose own mask had dropped; she was now smiling proudly at me.

“You’re head and shoulders above any other candidate on parchment,” Demelza continued. “In fact, you’re head and shoulders above Josh on your day, which is why you were picked ahead of him. But where he has the edge is his mental strength, not on the pitch but off it. That’s why things went wrong for you last time, if I’m right, and that’s the thing I can’t afford to let happen again. If it weren’t for that I’d have been here Monday and you’d have been training with us all week, but this decision was a hard one to make. Sinead and Keira have given me character references and I think you’ve learned enough not to make the same mistake, but I can’t be a hundred per cent certain. But I’m willing to take a chance on you, because by Merlin, you’re one of the best Chasers in the damn League. So, do you think you can promise me we won’t have a repeat of the incident in Diagon Alley?”

“Yes!” I said straight away. “I mean – I had a few personal issues, which I let get the better of me. But that’s all resolved now, and I promise it won’t happen again. I know now how much this opportunity means to me, and I swear I won’t mess it up, I’ll do the best I possibly can.”

Demelza smiled.

“The other thing I like about you is that you’ve had a chance and lost it. It means you actually appreciate playing for England, instead of assuming it’s a God-given right. Either that, or you’re just not a big-headed oaf. Either way, hopefully you’ll be a good example to ... some other members of the squad, naming no names.”

I grinned, knowing she was referring to Jeremiah McLaggen.

“I assume you accept my offer to join the squad, then?” she added.

“Yeah.” My grin spread from ear to ear. “Yeah, I’d love to.”

“Superb! I’ll see you on Monday, nine o’clock sharp, at the stadium; that’s where we’ll be training. And one more thing. If you ever feel you have any problems, remember that it’s always best to just talk to someone about it, okay? It doesn’t matter who; whether it’s me, or Keira, or Sinead, or your mum, that’s not important, just so long as you don’t bottle things up and let them escalate. Then we won’t need to worry about losing you again. Okay?”

“Yeah, and thank you so much for this, it means so much-”

“No, it should be me who’s thanking you.” She smiled again, this time wryly. “Without you in the squad, our Chaser attack is still damn good, but there’s no real spark, no exuberance, no spontaneity. With you, we might just get to the final of this thing.”

***

A few minutes later I Apparated into my flat, and immediately thought my ears had exploded.

James!” Mum shrieked as she, Lily, Rose and Maddie all threw their arms round me. I stumbled backwards slightly and stared in surprise at the mass of family members who’d gathered in my lounge and apparently brought a few crates of mead with them – I suspected Freddie and Louis had had something to do with that.

“I – what-”

“Brigid tipped us off.” Dad grinned. “Well done, Jim, we’re all so proud of you.”

I turned to look at Brigid, who’d Apparated next to me and was wearing a mischievous grin of her own.

“Surprise?” she said.

“You’re a star.” I smiled at her.

Freddie had fought his way through the throng of Weasleys and was next to congratulate me once my fan club had dispersed.

“Well done, mate,” he said with a beaming smile and a manly handshake. “Make sure to get me a ticket for the final, will you?”

“I think Dad’s the one you want to ask about that,” I pointed out.

It was Albus who ensured I was well supplied with mead, pressing not one but two bottles into my hands.

“Drink up; you won’t get much more opportunity over the next few weeks!” he said cheerily.

“Do you reckon you’ll get to play many of the games?” Aunt Angelina asked.

A few hisses echoed round the room, as though it was a taboo for any family member to dare suggest I wasn’t a shoo-in for all the matches. But she was right to ask, of course; there were four Chasers in the squad, and I was the least experienced by far. There was no reason to assume I’d be guaranteed a game.

“I haven’t a clue,” I said frankly. “I think I’d have a chance of playing against Nigeria, if it wasn’t the first of England’s matches. There’s only six training days between now and that match; it might be a bit risky to throw me in-”

“On the contrary; when else are they going to give you your first cap? Against Canada? In a knock-out match? No, I think you’ll play,” Uncle Charlie said, amidst nods of agreement. “Looks like I’ll have to extend my leave, eh? Can’t miss you playing for the country!”

I grinned.

“I’d like that.”

Carlotta finally made her way to me, and snaked her arms round my waist.

“Pumpkin doesn’t go with fish,” she said by way of a greeting.

I laughed, and kissed her forehead.

“Duly noted.”

The conversation amongst the more Quidditch-minded members of family turned again to the permutations of the groups. Unlike last week, this time I joined in. Now I had a personal interest in the teams England would be playing, the conversation seemed far more interesting.

“Nigeria ought to be a walkover,” Lucy was saying. “They’re not even in the top thirty!”

“But if we’re too complacent, they could spring a surprise,” Brigid pointed out. “We should beat them, but we can’t assume we will.”

“It’ll be bloody disappointing if we don’t, though,” Teddy said. “Same with Spain, to be honest – sorry, Carlotta,” he added.

“It’s fine.” She waved a hand airily.

“Look, we’re in the top tier, we’re fifth in the world, only one team from each group makes it to the quarters – we’ve got to be looking towards a bare minimum of winning every game in our group, surely?” Albus reasoned.

“Anything less than the semis will be a disappointment, given the management’s aims since the last World Cup,” Uncle Charlie said.

Those of us who remembered the last World Cup campaign winced at the thought of it.

“Was it really that bad?” asked Maddie.

“It was dreadful,” Dad said gloomily. “It’s not as though we if expected to win the Cup, but we were at least expected to get out of the group. Thrashed by Australia, a terrible performance against Norway, and we couldn’t even redeem ourselves against Georgia; we only scraped that win by catching the Snitch.”

“Who did win the Cup?” Carlotta asked curiously.

“Uruguay. Beat Russia in the final. Good game, that. Russia shocked Ireland in the semis, and Uruguay steamrollered Bulgaria. Russia have waned a bit since then though; I don’t think they’ll be as big a threat.”

“They’ll be lucky to get out of their group, with Australia in it,” Freddie added. “They could turn Russia over like they did us.”

“Na, Australia aren’t as good now either. Russia will win that group,” Hugo said. “I can’t see there being too many upsets, I think all the tier one teams will qualify for the quarters. Argentina would have had a chance if they hadn’t been drawn with Ireland; they won’t be able to beat them.”

“Germany could beat Egypt,” I chipped in. “That’s the only upset I can see happening, though.”

“Are you in training on Monday?” Rose asked.

“Yup. Nine o’clock sharp. It’ll be weird, joining in late...”

“You’re all pros, I’m sure the other guys will be fine with it,” Freddie shrugged.

“Oh, I’m not worried about their reactions. Cato and Cleo will obviously be fine with me, and I get on with the Woods as well. Although they might be a bit bummed I’m replacing one of their fellow Puddlemere players. No, the only problem would be McLaggen, and I don’t pay any attention to him anyway so it’ll be fine.”

Freddie snorted.

“I can’t believe he’s playing for England.” Albus shook his head incredulously. “Can you remember what he was like to play with for Gryffindor? And that was before he embarked on his bid to play every position possible.”

Freddie and Roxanne nodded in agreement.

“You guys only had to put up with him for one year!” I complained. “I had to deal with him for three!”

“I had to captain him for three,” Teddy interjected sourly. “And trust me, he was just as jumped-up even as a Second Year.”

It was Teddy’s Chaser spot I’d filled in my Second Year, after he’d left Hogwarts.

“Well that’s your fault for picking him,” I pointed out.

“He was the best of the lot.” He sighed. “Caught the Snitch first every time. And at least when he was playing a position as remote as Seeker, I could have as few dealings with him as possible. The only issue was when he wanted to show off by catching the Snitch within the first ten minutes of a match, when we were aiming to rack up the points. That’s why Seekers shouldn’t be too arrogant.”

“But it’s the best position to play if you’re not a team player,” I summarised. “I’ve not played Chaser with him before, unless you count the training sessions earlier this year, but I bet he likes to steal the show when he can.”

“You can’t be a one-man show as a Chaser,” Teddy agreed.

“One-man?” Mum raised an eyebrow at her de facto godson.

“One-person,” he corrected, looking slightly abashed.

“I bet he tries,” I said darkly in response to the initial comment.

“Emily Wood and Tamsin Robins wouldn’t let him, surely?” Mum said. “That’s where you need to be vocal, Jim; don’t let him walk over you just because he’s older than you and an incumbent. You’ve had more experience at Chaser than he has, you know what you’re talking about.”

“Demelza wants me to be an example to him as to how an England player should carry themselves, apparently.” I pulled a face.

“And she’s got a point,” Mum said proudly. “He likes to take all the headlines; you’re satisfied with a good team performance. That’s what being a Chaser is all about.”

“Reckon he’ll be trying Beater any time soon?” Roxanne giggled.

“Why do you ask; is your sweepstake guess coming up?” I smirked.

“Na, mine was sometime last year. Yours is round about now, isn’t it?”

“I think it was about May sometime, so I’ve been and gone as well. He’s taking remarkably longer than most of us expected, I think.”

“What are you on about?” Hugo asked with a frown.

“Sweepstake on when McLaggen will try his hand as a Beater,” Roxanne explained. “Most players in the League are in on it, I think. Em Wood started it, of all people. It’s like a rite of passage, joining the sweepstake when you join a pro team.”

“Does he know about it?”

“Course he doesn’t; it’d be pretty pointless if he did, wouldn’t it?” I reasoned.

“He’s not too popular in the Quidditch circles, is he?” Teddy mused.

“Do you honestly wonder why?” Mum said. “People don’t like that kind of an attitude floating round their squads. One of these days he’ll get his comeuppance. He’s only playing for England because they’ve got no better options; I can’t see that remaining the case for much longer.”

“Maybe you could be the catalyst for that, Jim?” Freddie grinned.

Me, being Jeremiah McLaggen’s downfall? I liked the sound of that.



A/N: Ironically, I'm not a cook at all. In fact, for me beans on toast is impressive. So I'm not sure why I made Carlotta an avid cook - probably because James thinks with his stomach a lot of the time. But this complete failing means I have no idea whether pumpkins DO go with fish or not. If they do, I apologise for being wrong, and please don't tell me I made a mistake. ;) 

Thanks for all the love and reviews, it's always really appreciated. :)


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