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Off the Rails by water_lily43175
Chapter 55 : fifty-five
 
Rating: MatureChapter Reviews: 4


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I hadn’t been expecting to play against Nigeria or Spain. In fact, even after I’d been picked for the Nigeria match, I still didn’t automatically assume I’d play against Spain. My selection had come as a pleasant surprise to me both times.

All the same, it was a disappointment to learn I wasn’t in the team to play Canada.

“Just player rotation,” Demelza reassured me. “This time, it’s your turn to sit out. Don’t think it’s a reflection on your performances; you’ve played very well in both games. I’ve been incredibly impressed with you.”

It wasn’t hard to guess how she was thinking. Jess Birch was also back in the side as Seeker ahead of Archibald Tromburg. Canada were a good side, and we had to beat them if we were to ensure our progress. Demelza had to pick the strongest team at her disposal, and clearly at this point she preferred to pick players who’d already been tried and tested mentally at this level.

Still, I tried to convince myself my World Cup wasn’t over yet. Admittedly if she was choosing players for must-win matches based on their previous experience, I probably didn’t have much of a chance as the stakes rose and the matches became harder and more important. But I was still in the squad, and that meant I had the opportunity to push the others for a place in the starting line up.

I’d thought it would be a relief not to have the pressure of the Canada match on my shoulders. But this wasn’t quite the case. The personal pressure had been replaced by the frustrating thought that, sitting in the stands, I’d have absolutely no control over the result of the match. It was a feeling I wasn’t used to, as I’d played so frequently for the Falcons recently, and I didn’t like it. At least it would hopefully make the pressure of playing seem less terrible, if it were the preferable sensation.

One advantage of sitting out was that I could make sure Brigid’s birthday was more about her. Demelza let us have Monday afternoon off as the day before a match was usually less strenuous than other training days anyway, and she knew a lot of us wanted to catch the Ireland match. So I headed straight to Puddlemere, knowing I’d find her in the stands there. Luckily, Germany’s match was being played on the adjacent pitch so I didn’t have to miss it.

I soon found Brigid in the stand, watching Ireland’s game, with her parents. She seemed happy to see me, and even more so when I handed her present over to her.

“You never remember! I’m impressed, Jim!”

“It’s the new, post-breakdown me,” I grinned. “I’m going to remember everyone’s birthdays from now on.”

“First orchestrating some good publicity without my help, now you’re remembering to buy birthday presents without prompting ... before long you won’t need me any more!” she laughed.

“I always need you,” I said fondly, draping an arm round her shoulders and squeezing tightly. “Carlotta says happy birthday, by the way. I think she wanted to come down herself to watch some of the Quidditch, but she’s had to go into work today.”

“Tell her thank you very much,” Brigid smiled. “Wait – she didn’t buy this present, did she?”

I mock-gasped.

“How dare you suggest I didn’t buy your present myself? Of course she didn’t; it was all me! Honestly, I’m a changed man.”

She laughed.

“I believe you, don’t worry.”

I grinned, and turned my attention to the match in front of us.

“How are they doing?” I asked.

“Not too bad. Argentina are playing damn well though. We’re doing well to stay in front at the moment, if I’m honest.”

I glanced at the scoreboard and saw Ireland were only two goals ahead.

“Is that down to your guys not playing well, or the Argies having a good one?”

“Bit of both, I think,” Brigid replied. “We’ve not been tested properly yet, so this is a pretty big step up from the other group games. It’s all going to come down to the Snitch capture, I think.”

I pulled a face.

“What about the Germans?” I turned to try to see the score in that match.

“Same kind of situation, I think. Klaus will need to catch the Snitch for them to win.”

“He’s one of the best Seekers around right now; he’ll manage,” I said confidently. “What are the permutations looking like?”

“I think they need a winning margin of a hundred and ten points, or something like that. So they can’t be more than forty points behind when he catches the Snitch.”

“They’re three goals ahead at the moment-” Sinead’s voice was drowned out by a few cheers from that match’s crowd. “Make that four, Della just scored. So they should be okay.”

“How’s she playing?” I asked. “Although I guess you’re not really paying attention to that match, are you?”

“A little bit. She’s one of my players, just because my son’s playing on the adjacent pitch doesn’t mean I’m disregarding her completely.” Sinead smiled slightly. “She’s playing very well, as she usually does. She really is their star player.”

“Good on her.” I grinned.

“It’s a shame you’re not playing tomorrow,” Sinead added.

I shrugged, trying not to look too disappointed.

“Squad rotation. I half-expected it.”

“For what it’s worth, I’d be playing you,” she said.

“The others know how to handle this type of match though,” I reasoned.

“You’ll only learn how if you’re given the opportunity,” she pointed out. “Oh well. I’m sure Demelza has her reasons. And she’s no idiot; she won’t completely rule you out of the knock-out stages, especially as she seems to think a lot of you. But I do think playing against Canada would help your cause slightly.”

“I’ll just have to work a bit harder in training from now on, eh?” I said with a wry smile.

“How are things with your best friend Jeremiah?” Brigid asked.

I groaned theatrically.

“He’s as awful as always,” I said. “You’ve seen him on the pitch, hogging the Quaffle like it’s nobody’s business. He’s a right ass in training too, constantly reminding me he’s had more experience of playing for England than I have. Dick.” I scowled.

“He’s an idiot,” she agreed. “Still, least you’re better than him, eh?” She ruffled my hair.

She was distracted from boosting my ego, as the Irish and Argentinean Seekers both went into a dive. Moments later, Brianna emerged as the triumphant player, rising with her fist clenched.

Brigid let out a delighted squeal at her country’s success, and I grinned, and rose to my feet to applaud the players. Next to England, I supported Ireland, partly because Ryan played for them but also because of the general camaraderie between the Irish and English players within the League. With the exception of the Lynches, the Irish players were a friendly bunch.

“Watch out for Cassie Lynch,” Brigid warned me as we headed down the stairs of the stand to see the players. “She’s around, and if she sees you I’ve no doubt she’ll try to sink her claws into you again.”

“She wouldn’t have a chance,” I replied smoothly.

***

There was a distinctly smaller group of Weasleys in attendance for the Canada match. Only those who were genuinely interested in Quidditch – namely Mum, Albus, Lily, Hugo, Uncle George, Freddie, Roxanne and Uncle Charlie – showed up. Even Aunt Angelina was absent, having apparently lost a bet to Uncle George which left her running the shop. I knew Dad would have turned up if it wasn’t for his own work commitments, and I suspected the same was true of Teddy and Uncle Ron.

Part of the reason for the absences was of course that I wasn’t playing. A lot of my family members didn’t mind watching games I played in, and would almost certainly snap up tickets for the final regardless of which teams played, let alone whether I was involved, but they weren’t interested in a group match that didn’t concern me. I couldn’t blame them, given that they’d already taken two days off work to watch me. Demand for the match also meant it was ticket only, which I’d expected, and the hassle of acquiring tickets had obviously deterred some of them. Mum had managed to nab some tickets through her links at the Ministry, and I’d also been given a few, but most of them had been snapped up very quickly – after all, there weren’t many seats in the small stands.

Given the match was ticketed, it was even more of a surprise to see Maddie sitting with Lily.

“What are you doing here?” I asked, taking a seat next to her after I’d fulfilled my commitments with the team.

“Why, am I only allowed to watch Quidditch matches you play in?” She raised an eyebrow. “It’s England, in a World Cup. I decided to come along to watch. Is that a crime?”

“Course not. I was just surprised to see you here, that’s all. I didn’t realise you’d managed to get a ticket.”

“Your Mum had an extra one in case your Dad got the day off, I think. Either way, Lily snagged it from somewhere for me. So, how many points have we got over them at the moment?”

“A hundred and twenty,” I replied promptly.

“Not enough to ensure we get through even if we lose the match, then.”

“Nope. Luckily, we don’t need to score too many to put the game out of their reach. But they’re playing well, so anything could happen.”

Maddie nodded in agreement.

“Still think you should be playing,” she said. “Group Four gets decided today too, doesn’t it?”

“Yeah, that one’s a straight shoot-out between Russia and Australia. I reckon Russia will win, based on their form so far.”

“Who’s already through?”

I tutted.

“You should know the answer to that, Madeleine,” I scolded. “Ireland and Germany, of course!”

“Oh, so Germany beat Egypt then?”

“Easily. It was tight at first, but the Germans ran away with it in the end. Mostly because of Della’s good Chaser play and Klaus catching the Snitch, of course.”

“The Brand Show, huh?” She grinned. “Suppose you’re hoping England don’t get drawn against Germany in the quarters, then?”

If we get through,” I reminded her. “It doesn’t matter who we get; they’re all good sides.”

“I guess that’s what tends to happen in World Cups,” she agreed. “But still, Germany have slain one giant in Egypt, who’s to say they won’t do the same again?”

“I dunno; I think I’d rather have them than, say, Bulgaria,” I reasoned. “Beating Germany seems more possible. But then you’d run the risk of being too complacent...” I sighed. “Sport, eh? Don’t play it professionally, Mads, it’s enough to pull your hair out.”

She laughed.

“I’ll keep that in mind,” she said, sounding amused.

“How’s that going, anyway?” I asked. “The whole tennis thing?”

“Signed with an agent the other day. Just looking for a coach now, then we can get the ball rolling. I’m excited, but really nervous at the same time, you know? I mean, this is it, this is what I’ve been waiting for.”

“Do you regret turning that contract down last summer?”

“Not one bit,” she said flatly. “I wouldn’t have left Lily for the world.”

I smiled fondly, and gave her a one-armed hug.

“I really hope this works out for you,” I said.

“So do I, Jim,” she replied. “So do I.”

***

We won the match, but it was a hard task. Canada’s Chasers were incredibly good, and pulled ahead on a few occasions. But in the end Jess was just too good for their Seeker, and secured the group win. While we were all overjoyed to have qualified for the quarter-finals, the overriding feeling was relief. None of us wanted to fail, and missing out on qualification would have been the biggest failure of them all.

But I was feeling uneasy about our prospects. It was becoming increasingly clear something was going to have to give. Us Chasers had all been rotated thoroughly, and it seemed evident that one player was more redundant than the others.

Jeremiah McLaggen was superb on a broom, there was no doubting that. And he was a more than adept Chaser. But he offered nothing special, nothing to set him apart from anyone else. He was physical, yes – but so was Emily, who was far superior with the Quaffle. His saving grace had always been his flying skill, but that was where I was better than him. That was why things just hadn’t worked when the three of us had played together; he offered nothing different to me or Emily, nothing to add to our dynamic as a unit.

In that case, it seemed as though our best unit had to include Tamsin. The safe option was for me to sit out. After all, the other three were the incumbents, they’d played the qualification matches, and if Wadcock were still in the squad ahead of me, I’d opt to play McLaggen ahead of Wadcock.

But they’d not set the world apart against Canada. Emily and McLaggen playing alongside each other just didn’t seem to work given their similar styles of play. I couldn’t see Demelza choosing to leave Emily out; her little tricks were doubly as successful when combined with Tamsin’s creativity. So the only other option was to leave McLaggen out.

But that would mean playing me in the knockout stages. And I wasn’t sure if Demelza was prepared to do that. Either way, I had a sneaking suspicion this was why Tamsin had seemed so unconvinced before the Spain match. Perhaps it wasn’t me she was uncertain about, but her Tornados teammate. Perhaps she’d seen what I now did; that the dynamic just didn’t work when he played, no matter who his teammates were.

I didn’t know for sure if this was the case. But it gave me even more motivation to work hard in training. Because I wanted to play in that quarter-final. I wanted us to get as far as we possibly could. And I wanted to be as big a part of that as possible.

I’d had to sit on the bench for one match. I didn’t want to have to do it again.


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