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Off the Rails by water_lily43175
Chapter 53 : fifty-three
 
Rating: MatureChapter Reviews: 6


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A/N: Huge apologies for the delay in updates, I've been all over the place for the last three months. But I'm back now, and hopefully I can get this baby finished in the next couple of months. Thanks for all the reviews, they all really mean a lot. :)



My first day training with England felt a bit like my first day with the Falcons. Actually, in a sense it was more like my first training session with Gryffindor given that the Woods and Jeremiah McLaggen had been in my house team the year I’d joined it. Either way, I was right back to being the junior player in the squad.

Most of the players greeted me with nothing but good will. I’d expected that from Cato and Cleo, of course, and Emily and Michael Wood had always been good sports, but it was a pleasant surprise that the third Beater Gregory Ellis was just as good-natured – he played for Puddlemere alongside Josh Wadcock, and I knew they also got on well off the pitch. I supposed a part of me had expected him to harbour some sort of ill feeling towards me for taking his friend’s spot in the squad.

“Hey, it’s hardly as though you gave him dragon pox,” he reasoned when I mentioned this to him later. “And I doubt you asked for something like this to happen. Besides, he’s got a good head on his shoulders, he’ll get through it fine. I actually think he felt guilty for gaining by your misfortune in the first place. So it’s all come full circle in the end.”

“You’re not contagious, are you?” I joked.

“Oh yeah, I’m riddled with it. Josh asked me to pass it on to you.” He grinned.

Of course, not everyone was pleased to see me. I’d have been surprised – and disappointed – if McLaggen had greeted my call up with anything other than blatant displeasure. But he was in a minority of one, and so I didn’t let it bother me.

The first thing Demelza did was hand us all a copy of the World Cup schedule. There was little room for manoeuvre; the three rounds of the group stages were to happen within a three week period. We’d be okay, so long as no match went on longer than a week.

But that shouldn’t be too much of a problem. As Mum had told Carlotta, while Quidditch matches could last for days, even weeks on end, in reality this rarely happened, and most matches could be expected to last a few days at most. A match was only likely to go on longer if both Seekers were woefully inept – which was unlikely to occur in the World Cup – or if both teams were aiming for a long match to rack up the points. This happened a lot in a long League with rest periods – we’d done exactly that against the Arrows at the beginning of the season – but with such short turnarounds between matches in the World Cup, teams were unlikely to go for this tactic.

England’s first match was against Nigeria, the minnows of the group. Then eight days later, we’d play Spain, followed by Canada six days after that. It seemed just about the best outcome; our opposition would get progressively better, allowing ourselves a bit of leeway at the beginning of the competition.

Not that anyone would say that out loud, especially not in earshot of Demelza.

With eight days until the Nigeria game, this week’s training would be devoted primarily to that match, which meant Demelza announced the team before any of us had even gotten off the ground that morning. It wasn’t her final decision, she reminded us, just a provisional line-up. If things weren’t working out in training, she wouldn’t hesitate to make changes.

I should have guessed what was to come from that remark alone. After all, the other three Chasers – Emily, McLaggen and Tamsin Robins – had been playing together for England for the best part of a year by now. There was no reason that attack wouldn’t gel against Nigeria, of all teams.

Tamsin wasn’t going to play against Nigeria. I was.

“Tam doesn’t need the match practice,” Demelza told me. “In fact, if anything she needs a break.”

“Thanks,” Tamsin said dryly.

“You need to get a game under your belt, though. The quicker we do that, the better. It means we won’t quite be throwing you in at the deep end if we need to play you in the later stages. Nigeria should be an easy task, especially since you’re familiar with how Emily plays even if you’ve not played with her in a while. You should also be reasonably familiar with how Jeremiah flies, although I realise he’s playing in a totally different position again to the two he played for Gryffindor. The point is, I’m hoping the familiarity will help. My only slight concern is that Tam’s the Chaser you need most practice with because you’re totally unfamiliar with her game. But she’s good enough to tackle that situation if it arises, so I’m not overly worried. Right now, I just want to see how well you gel with the team as a whole.”

Initially, it wasn’t too much of a challenge. I was used to playing alongside the Bagmans by now, so they weren’t an issue. The first choice Seeker Jessica Birch was a fast and quiet flyer, so she didn’t get in anyone’s way – in fact, she was so quiet that occasionally I was at risk of getting in her way, which made her fellow Tornado, McLaggen snicker. Tamsin, however, promised to give me some tips on how to sense where Jessica was at any time, while giving McLaggen a scathing look.

In fact gelling with the Chasers, the very people Demelza had hoped I’d slot in easily alongside, proved to be the main trouble. Granted, I’d played alongside Emily before, but that was when I was thirteen and fourteen. She played a similar game to Della, so I’d assumed I’d find it fairly easy to slot into a Chaser attack with her again. The trouble was, when Ryan and I had played with Emily at Hogwarts, she’d been the strongest player physically, and she still possessed that attribute. It meant her game was actually more of a hybrid of Ryan and Della’s, which proved a struggle for me to get used to at first.

As training progressed though, I began to focus more on the similarities between my current teammates and my Falcons partners, instead of the differences. Emily got her tricks and flicks from the same book as Della, and used her physicality in a similar way to Ryan. McLaggen, meanwhile, provided all-out strength and, as much as I hated to admit it, was a fairly skilled flyer.

What they lacked was pace, both on a broom and out of the hand. The fast passing wasn’t an issue, as that was my own strength. But for as long as I could remember watching them, England had never used pace on a broom as a tactic. It was as though coaches concentrated on nurturing their players’ Quidditch skills, and put flying skills on the backburner. That kind of tactic was fine against lesser teams who couldn’t compete with England’s Quidditch skill, but against the top teams we’d fall short. Ireland had the fastest Chaser unit on show; Ryan was rapid, of course, but so were his Irish teammates Aisling Quigley and Fiona O’Sullivan. And they still demonstrated remarkable skill with the Quaffle.

Demelza had surely realised this, I considered to myself. After all, hadn’t she told me I offered something different to her squad? I wasn’t the fastest flyer in the Falcons squad, or even the second fastest – that was Roxanne – but I was no slouch, and I was definitely faster than everybody else in the England squad bar the Seekers. Was that why Demelza had picked me? Was she hoping to inject more pace into the English game? It certainly seemed like a good bet to me.

Of course, training wasn’t the only thing on the agenda. We were representing our country, which meant any potential success was reliant on the support of the general public. We weren’t going to get that purely by being chosen by the management to play in the tournament. For one thing, the Prophet were still firmly against me even though Demelza had picked me a second time. It meant I had a serious public relations exercise to carry out.

So afternoons were dedicated to doing just that. It was frustrating in a sense because I’d much rather have been training, especially as I was just beginning to get the hang of playing with Emily and McLaggen. But I also understood why we had to do it, and besides, when our matches began to get tougher our off-field obligations would give way to more training time, so it wasn’t too dreadful a prospect.

Our first afternoon was spent in the children’s ward at St Mungo’s. It was a bit of a sombre visit at first – after all, there were few ailments that would keep a wizarding child in hospital, so it was sad to see all the bed-bound kids. But they all seemed really excited to see us and have us read to them.

Before long, the kid I was reading to, Bobby, got bored of the story and asked what I liked best about playing Quidditch.

“I like the flying part the best,” I told him. “Even if I’m not training, sometimes I’ll get my broom out and just go for a fly around the pitch. Do you like flying?”

“I can’t fly,” he said. “I’ve never tried, my mum says it’s too dangerous.”

“How old are you?”

“Eight.”

“Never flied – how can you have gotten to the age of eight without having flown?” I cried. Then I had an idea. “Back in a moment, Bobby.”

I crossed the ward to the Healer on duty, who happened to be Allegra.

“You got any outdoors space here?” I asked her.

“A little garden, yeah. Why?”

“Are any of these kids well enough to go outside?”

“Some of them are, yes. We take them outside once a day.”

“What about flying?”

She looked at me suspiciously.

“James, are you planning to run a flying class in the hospital garden?”

“They’re bored stiff! Look at them all!” I gestured round the room. “They were excited to see us, sure, but they’re bored of being in bed! They’re kids, they must be bored.”

“But – you can’t just take them outside to fly! Some of them don’t even know how-”

“Exactly,” I said promptly. “So we can teach them. What better place to learn than at a hospital?”

She hesitated slightly.

“I’ll have to ask my superiors. And I’m not sure what the parents would say about it. But I’ll see what I can do.”

Luckily for me, today Allegra’s superior was Aunt Audrey, who approved the idea straight away.

So out I headed, with Emily, Michael, Greg Ellis, Jess Birch and the second Keeper Gemma Deans, a few Healers, several brooms we’d borrowed from Diagon Alley, and all the kids deemed well enough to fly and who’d expressed an interest in it. Bobby, to my pleasure, was one of them.

The hour or so outside seemed to race by, and by the end, all the kids had flown successfully. Some of them had clearly flown before and just wanted the opportunity to fly a few laps. The others needed a bit of coaching first, and it was the best sight in the world to see little Bobby flying a lap around the garden, about five feet in the air, with the hugest grin on his face.

“How was training?” Carlotta asked when I got back that evening.

“Really good,” I said, still feeling euphoric. “Really, really good.”

I didn’t even tell her I was going to play against Nigeria. The morning’s events had been well and truly forgotten.

***

“Nice cheeky bit of positive P.R there, Jim,” Brigid said approvingly, slapping a few publications down on the table in front of me. “They all liked your hospital stunt yesterday. At this rate you won’t need me to boost your public profile.”

“I didn’t do it for the public’s approval,” I complained, pulling the morning’s copy of the Prophet closer. “I just thought it would be a nice thing to do for the kids.”

“I know.” She smiled. “That’s why you don’t need me to dig up some manufactured ‘good deed’; you do it all yourself, out of the goodness of your heart. And everyone liked it. I had the wireless on this morning; they were waxing lyrical about you.”

“They’re not all happy with me,” I observed, skimming through the Prophet’s bits on England.

“You would find the one piece in there that’s not supportive of you, wouldn’t you?” she sighed. “Yes, one of their journalists wrote an idiotic article claiming it was a reckless thing to do and that the parents were up in arms about it, an article that’s totally redundant, as the parents they talked to didn’t even have any kids who got to fly. But every other piece in there supports you. It’s unusual for the paper to allow stories with more than one angle. Clearly they know they can’t afford to run bad stories about you, because most of their readership doesn’t want to read about naughty, rebellious James Potter any more. Public opinion is good, and they feel pressured to go along with it. You’re winning the war against them.”

“I never waged war against them,” I mused, still reading the paper’s various columns.

“No, but they waged war against you with that first bad article, after you were dropped. That, and the minor detail of them sacking your mum. Anyway, there’s also a lot of speculation about the team for next Tuesday. Some people think you might get a game.”

“Well, they’re right,” I said with a grin.

Brigid squealed excitedly.

“That’s great! It’s free entry to watch the match, isn’t it?”

“I think so,” I frowned, trying to remember what I’d read yesterday. “The group matches are all open to everyone in theory, though I think they’ll have to regulate the numbers at the bigger matches. Our match against Canada will have to be ticketed, or they’ll end up with too many people there. The knockout stages are all ticketed, obviously.”

“And you’ll be getting us tickets for those, of course.”

“If I can, but I’ve got a lot of people wanting tickets from me – and besides, there’s little chance I’ll even get to play in those matches if we get there.”

“Who says I care about seeing you play? It’s the World Cup, I just want to see the games,” she said with a cheeky grin.

“What, you want to watch England play?” I raised an eyebrow.

She shrugged. “It’s Quidditch. Good teams, good games. I don’t care who plays, so long as I get to watch a good game. I’ll try to watch all Ireland’s matches, obviously. Besides, of course I want to see you playing! This is what you’ve always dreamed of; I’m not going to miss out on that.” She paused. “You nervous?”

I hesitated.

“You know, I don’t think I am,” I said. “But then, I don’t think it’s properly sunk in yet. I expect I’ll be bricking it when the match comes around.”

“That’s only natural,” she reasoned. “But you’ll be fine. You always are.”

***

Brigid’s reassurance proved invaluable as the match grew ever closer. My situation became more and more real as training stepped up, as I received my playing robes, and as Demelza announced the team at the end of the week. After that, we were presented to the media at large to do interviews. My stomach clenched at that prospect; this was hardly my forte. Luckily, Tamsin had taken me to one side and given me some much-needed advice on how to handle the journalists.

“If any of them ask you a question you don’t want to answer, just say ‘no comment’ and move on,” she instructed. “Stay calm, don’t rise to anything. Don’t give them any unwanted headlines. Remember, they’re interviewing you as a Quidditch player, and so you have the right to avoid any non-Quidditch-related question you feel uncomfortable answering. They can’t force you to talk about anything you don’t want to talk about. Control the situation; don’t let them dictate how the interview goes.”

It was helpful advice, but I was still nervous as we headed across to the group of waiting journalists, British and international alike. What if I slipped up, or snapped?

In the end, the interviews all went fine. The first one was my worst; once I’d gotten that out of the way, the others were harmless in comparison. After all, nobody quite competed with my mother when it came to interview technique.

I modelled my robes for her and Carlotta that evening.

“The light, it blinds!” Carlotta cried in a mocking tone, raising her hand to her eyes.

“They are a bit bright white, aren’t they?” I admitted, looking down at myself.

“They won’t stay that way for long,” Mum said. “Oh, my baby...” She held a hand to her heart. “I can’t believe you’re going to be playing for England!”

“Try not to get too emotional, it’s just Nigeria,” I grinned.

“It’s more than just Nigeria, you know that! It’s a World Cup match! Besides, this is just the beginning. Just think; you could be playing in the final in a few weeks!”

“Don’t get your hopes up,” I said with a raised eyebrow. “Even if we get there, I highly doubt I’ll be playing.”

“You never know,” she reminded me. “Be prepared for all eventualities.”

“I’ve booked the day off work to come and watch,” Carlotta said, “so you’ll have to make sure the game doesn’t go into Wednesday or I’ll have to miss the end.”

“Shouldn’t you be saving that day to take off the week after?” I cocked my head slightly. “I thought you’d want to watch England play Spain.”

She shrugged.

“I’d rather watch you play, and you said yourself you don’t know whether you’ll get any more matches. Besides, this is your debut, I’m not missing that. If you play any more weekday matches, I’ll just have to try to wangle time off, maybe rearrange my shifts.”

I smiled, touched.

“I’d like it if you were there...” I began.

“Well that’s all very well, because you don’t have a say in the matter,” she replied with a smile of her own.

My grin widened, as I turned to look at my reflection in the mirror over the mantelpiece. It was a reflection that I could hardly believe. Here I was, standing in the robes of the English international Quidditch squad. It was a dream I’d harboured for years, one I’d expected to have to wait a few years longer to experience after I’d dispensed with my first chance so thoroughly. And now, Demelza was giving me a second chance...

I wasn’t going to mess it up. Not this time.

***

On the morning of the game itself, I felt sick with nerves like never before. This was England. It felt as though the whole world was watching. What if I did something wrong? What if we lost, because of me?

Carlotta, Mum, Dad, Albus, Lily and Freddie all tried in turn to calm me down, but nothing worked. An iron fist had taken hold of my gut, and just wouldn’t stop squeezing. My flat felt suffocating, so I headed to the ground early – today, to Uncle Ron’s delight, we were playing at the Cannons’ ground.

But even there I gained no respite. People were already milling around the pitches, most of them here for the England match. I retreated into the changing rooms to escape the attention, but it felt just as bad in there, confined by these four walls.

In just over an hour, I’d be kicking off from the ground for the start of the match. Time was passing far too fast, when all I wanted it to do was stop. I buried my head in my shaking hands, trying to calm my breathing down.

A cool hand fell on my shoulder.

“Relax, Junior,” Emily said calmly – she and the rest of the squad had picked up my Falcons nickname from the Bagmans, and given my standing in the squad, it seemed appropriate. “You’re letting yourself think too much.”

“What if I screw up?” I whispered to my knees.

“Then we’ll have to fix whatever happens on the pitch,” she said pragmatically. “But that’s the point; mistakes can be fixed. Besides, who’s to say you’ll screw up anyway?”

“Who’s to say I won’t?”

“I don’t think you will. Not badly enough to lose the match, anyway. I’ll be realistic here; yes, you might slip up. But then, so might I.”

I snorted, sitting up.

“Yeah, sure-”

“Well, if I can be invincible, why can’t you?” she said simply.

“Because you’re Emily Wood. You don’t make mistakes,” I said dully.

“Oh, I do. Don’t you remember what happened in my first match for England?”

I frowned. “No-”

“I dropped the Quaffle, then fell off my broom trying to recover it. Trust me, I make mistakes. I’m only human, just like everyone else. And I get nervous before matches too.”

“You don’t look it,” I observed.

“That’s because I’ve learned how to harness the nerves. You do the same, don’t you, for Falcons matches?”

“Yes, but this is different-”

“How is it different? You’re on a broom, playing Quidditch with six teammates, against seven other people, all of whom are just human and, in this instance, not as good as you. Don’t think of it as being England. Just think of it as being another Quidditch match. Think about it as though you’re playing for the Falcons, or Gryffindor.”

The advice was startlingly similar to what I’d given Jake only a few weeks ago, before his big Falcons match. He’d done alright in the end, hadn’t he? In fact, he’d done more than alright; he’d played out of his skin.

I sat up on the bench.

Maybe I could do the same?

***

I told myself to ignore the large crowd as we flew out onto the pitch, forced myself to shut out everything except the people that mattered. It was a tactic I’d employed against the Pride of Portree when outside influences had threatened to overwhelm me, and it seemed the thing to do here as well. It meant I didn’t even let myself look for my family and friends in the stand. I could see them after the match.

Hopefully, after we’d won.

The plan was to score as many goals as possible, but wrap the game up within six hours. Demelza didn’t want us to burn out too soon, not with two games to come in relatively quick succession. Although it seemed I wasn’t the only one who considered six hours more than long enough for a Quidditch match, judging by the expressions on McLaggen and Cleo’s faces. I’d not played in a match that long for about a year; it would take a lot of endurance. Still, at least we had a day off afterwards to recover.

“Remember, their Keeper tends to sidle off to his right,” Emily reminded me and McLaggen just before the match began. “That means his left hoop – our right – should be left unguarded. Their Chasers are far less physical than we are, so be rough if you have to.”

In World Cup Quidditch, there was no love lost.

The nerves began to rekindle as we lined up opposite the Nigerian players. After all, I was lining up in England colours. The whole world would be watching. I was on the highest possible pedestal; my nerves were inevitable.  But they weren’t crippling nerves like those which had swamped me earlier. These were – not good nerves, per se, but nerves I could channel into my performance. I was nervous because I wanted to play well. Right now, I truly thought I could.

The referee released the balls, threw the Quaffle into the air, and blew his whistle. With that, the game – and my England career – began.

Emily was right; their Chasers were far less physical than we were. She won possession of the Quaffle easily, and flew clear of her opposition in an instant.

It was partly that physicality that let us ahead fairly quickly on the scoreboard. Emily and McLaggen were both far too strong and the Nigerian Chasers were unable to secure the Quaffle from them. And once they’d secured it, and gotten it out to me, I was far too fast for them to keep up. Our tactic had the satisfying result that I’d scored most of our goals.

“An hour gone,” Emily said, after we’d scored our twentieth and gathered into a six-person team huddle. “I don’t know why Demelza thinks we need six hours, against these guys we only need a couple more hours to score enough goals to be comfortable. You guys reckon we should play for the five hundred point lead, then call it quits?”

“I’m good with that,” said Michael, who was captain. “Can one of you Chasers relay the message to Jess?”

“Will do.” Emily glanced round the pitch for our Seeker. “Good work, guys. Keep it up.”

With that, we disbanded.

Playing alongside Emily and McLaggen was enjoyable, I reflected as I waited for the latter to win the Quaffle at the restart. Different, but interesting. It was fun to be the quick one for once, though I missed the more technical plays which Ryan, Della and I tried out for the Falcons. Then again, we’d had three seasons to perfect those. I’d only been playing with these guys for a week.

The only irritating thing was McLaggen’s tendency to try to score himself, instead of passing to me when I had a clear shot at the hoops. He’d given away a couple of goal-scoring opportunities, which I could tell irritated Emily. Truth be told, it irritated me too, but I knew I couldn’t let that show on the pitch. It could wait until after the match, when we were behind closed doors.

After about two and a half hours, we achieved our five hundred point lead and Jess’s tactics visibly changed. Before, she’d been looking for the Snitch almost lazily, as though she knew her Nigerian counterpart wouldn’t find it, or at least if he did, she’d be able to get to it first. Now, she sat up on her broom, as alert as I’d ever seen her. Ten minutes later, she’d made the capture and sealed our first win.

As we flew to the centre of the pitch, we felt calmly triumphant rather than jubilant. We all knew that, although it had been a good performance, it was the easiest task we had facing us. We couldn’t afford to get complacent.

Demelza met us in the middle of the pitch as we descended to the ground.

“That was a short six hours,” she said dryly.

“That was my call,” Michael spoke up. “We figured we didn’t need to play for a full six.”

She nodded approvingly.

“Fair enough. Good work, team. Debrief in five.”

Now the match was over, I allowed myself to soak up the atmosphere. As if someone had flicked a switch in my head, I heard the cheers of the crowd for the first time. I’d just played for England. I grinned and headed over to a particularly orange area of the stand, remembering again why I found it handy being in a family of gingers.

Most of the Falcons squad joined the Weasley party, including Ryan, Della and Klaus who’d played yesterday when Ireland had thrashed Samoa and Germany had faced a surprisingly tough task against Wales. They’d pulled through in the end, thanks in no small part to Klaus’s timely Snitch capture. Stefan was the only absent player, as he was playing for Bulgaria on Thursday. Alfie had brought his niece along with him. It was nice to see them all and their presence reassured me more than anything else. They were just as much a part of my family as my actual relatives, so it was nice to know I had their support.

“You screwed up a bit after the twenty-eighth goal,” Della told me. “You passed to Wood when she was marked; you should have passed the other way, to McLaggen.”

“And you favoured your right side too much; you won’t get away with that against better teams,” Ryan added.

And it was always nice to get constructive criticism from them as well.

I pulled a face at them.

“‘Congratulations, James, for winning your first cap’...” I said, but I was grinning all the same.

Della laughed, and ruffled my hair.

“Yeah, that one. Nice work, Potter, I knew you’d get here sooner rather than later. Think you’ll play against Spain?”

“No idea,” I said frankly.

And to be honest, I didn’t want to think about it. I didn’t care about it. Right now, I just wanted to remain in the present and soak up everything that had just happened.


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