Chapter 7 : A Pack of Wild Dogs
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It was two in the afternoon.
“Arrrghhh,” he grumbled, stretching out flat on his back.
He'd lost count at his eighth shot of whisky. He didn't even remember getting home. Max must have shoved him into the Floo, and possibly into bed. He didn't need to glance down to feel that he was still fully dressed. He wiggled his toes. Yep, even his shoes were on.
Hell of a day yesterday. Watching the team lose spectacularly to Montrose had been an eye-opener. He hadn't thought he cared quite so much, but with every missed save and every dropped Quaffle, he'd felt more for his team than he had for his own ego. Yes, being the coach of a team who messed up was embarrassing, but he'd been more concerned with why they'd all played so badly when he knew they could do better. He'd seen them do better on the practice field. Maybe it was a case of opening-day nerves. Maybe the next game would be better.
His brain dredged up whisky-soaked memories from the pub then, and presented him with a picture of Molly, her eyes slightly unfocused from matching him shot for shot, leaning forward and kissing him.
Fitz stared up at the ceiling and replayed the memory to make sure he hadn't dreamed it. She'd definitely kissed him, hadn't she? He had way too clear a picture for it to be a dream. He could remember the feel of her lips on his, the whisky on her breath, her lithe body in his arms. He wanted very badly for that to be a true memory. That had been real, hadn't it?
He wasn't sure. It seemed like something he might have dreamed up. His entire body felt hammered flat, except his stomach, which was still threatening mutiny with every movement, every blink.
He needed Hangover-Curing Potion to fix this. It wouldn't fix what had happened yesterday with the team, but it would let him be upright and functional.
Fitz tried to sit up and his stomach heaved. Ten minutes later he'd managed to stumble into the kitchen, squinting against the sunlight, and started digging through the cabinets for a vial of potion. He had a small stash of them tucked behind the bottles of firewhisky and vodka.
“Looks like you had a good morning,” said Max's voice behind him.
Fitz downed the vial of Hangover-Curing Potion in two gulps. “Gaghhh.”
“Go to hell,” Fitz managed. The potion was starting to kick in. He threw himself onto a couch next to where Max was sitting. “What the hell happened? Did you beat me with a whisky bottle or something?”
Max grinned. “No, you beat yourself with it. And neither one of you paid me before you left, after you drank an entire bottle of firewhisky. I had to drag you home. Reckoned I'd make sure you were still breathing today.”
“Put it on my tab.”
“I could probably repossess your house by now,” Max said conversationally. “Pretty sure you might owe me your eternal soul by this time next year.”
Fitz grimaced. “Probably I should go sober, quit drinking.”
“Probably. But it seemed to be working for you last night.”
Fitz's heart leaped. “What d'you mean?”
Max gave him a sly look. “That was the very pretty girl on your team last night, wasn't it? You two seemed very friendly.”
“How friendly did we seem?” Fitz asked cautiously.
Max appeared to be greatly enjoying himself. “Och, having some whisky-induced memory loss, are we? I think that's what you two were shooting for last night, from what you said.”
“I remember some of it. Some of it I'm not sure I'm really remembering correctly.”
“If you remember kissing her in the middle of my pub, you're remembering correctly.”
A feeling of elation spread through Fitz, and he smiled slowly. It hadn't been a dream. “I didn't kiss her, she kissed me.”
“You were both kissing when I saw you. Then she left double-time. Without paying her tab,” Max added.
“I'll pay it. Send me a bill.” She had left right after the kiss. But it had been a good kiss, hadn't it? It had felt very good from what he could remember. She probably left because of what McCormack had said about keeping things professional.
Fitz groaned then. McCormack.
“It's not that big of a tab,” Max assured him.
“Not that. Bloody McCormack told us all to keep our trousers on and keep it professional. And there I am kissing our Keeper. Dammit.”
“Everyone makes mistakes.” Max didn't seem as concerned about it as Fitz thought he should be. “She's very pretty. I would've kissed her too, if she'd looked at me like that. Not so keen on the mohawk, but still-”
“I better go make sure she understands it was just... just a kiss.” And that she wouldn't mention it to the rest of the team. Or McCormack. It would be better if no one knew what had happened, he thought regretfully. “Keep that whole thing last night under your hat, would you? I don't want word getting round.”
Max shrugged. “Sure. I'm going home. See you later.”
Max let himself out, and Fitz hurried off to get showered.
There were no lights on in Molly's flat when he arrived, but he knocked on the door anyway. A few minutes later she appeared, dressed in a plush black bathrobe, her purple and gold curls floating around her face, swept to one side. She blinked at him a bit, as if she weren't sure he was real. She was holding a mug in one hand. It looked like Hangover-Curing Potion inside.
Suddenly he wasn't sure what to say. He knew they were better off pretending that kiss last night hadn't happened, but now he was here in front of her, he wasn't sure if she even remembered it. Maybe he shouldn't have come, should have just pretended nothing had happened. His eyes fell to her lips, and he knew he couldn't pretend. Putting it behind them, he could probably manage, but pretending he'd never kissed her – not happening.
“Hi,” he said, feeling a little stupid.
“Hi.” Her voice was throaty. She must have just woken up. “Want to come in? I was about to make coffee.”
He stepped inside, and followed her over to the kitchen. She waved her wand at the coffee maker and it started to bubble, the scent of dark roast wafting out.
“I think if I try to eat breakfast, my stomach won't make it,” Molly said. “I should have stopped at about five shots.”
“I'm pretty sure we drank twice that. Max had to help me get home.”
Her eyes met his. “How much do you remember?”
She knew what had happened, he was sure of it. “If you mean that you kissed me, I remember that.”
Molly's eyes closed briefly. “Dammit. I can't believe I did that. I'm sorry, I didn't really intend to, it just sort of happened.”
The apology didn't sit well with him. Their drunken kiss had been one of the best of his life. He didn't want to hear that she was sorry about it, even though he'd come over to tell her it was better to move past it. “Look, about that-”
“I think we should just pretend it never happened,” Molly said over his words.
He stared at her. She grabbed two mugs and poured coffee for each of them. Fitz took his, sipping it black and hoping the caffeine would clear up the last of the hangover fog in his head.
“Look, McCormack said everyone should keep it professional. I shouldn't have kissed you. Can we just go back to having a professional relationship? Just friends again. And we should keep it to ourselves, you know. Don't let the team find out. Or McCormack.” Molly drank her coffee black as well. He watched her swallow, saw how her eyes didn't entirely meet his.
He hadn't felt just friends toward her for a while. But she was right. Somehow hearing her say it made him a little disgruntled, though. It was exactly what he'd intended to say, so it made no sense to be annoyed by it. He tried to swallow the feeling with his coffee.
“I hope that's all right,” Molly said, and he looked up at her. She was looking straight at him now, and her blue eyes were a stormy greyish colour, her expression troubled.
“Yeah. It's just what I was going to say.”
“Oh. That's a relief.”
She didn't look relieved. He didn't feel it either. “Yeah. A relief.” He set his mug down and pushed it away a few inches. “I'd better go. I'll see you on the pitch tomorrow.”
She nodded, and he let himself out, glancing over his shoulder at her as he left. She was holding the mug so tightly her knuckles had gone white.
Molly hovered in front of the centre hoop, watching the team practice. No one was throwing any penalties at her or even trying to put the Quaffle through a hoop. She'd been hovering for nearly an hour.
The Chasers were still angry with her, she thought with a sigh.
It wasn't entirely surprising, given their row after the Magpies had defeated them, but it was still disheartening. Molly wasn't enjoying the feeling. Being ignored like this was extremely unsettling.
None of them had spoken to her in the locker room that morning, either. Only the Beaters, who'd blamed everything on Fitz, had even looked at her.
Preece and Gittins had attempted to ignore Fitz and spent the morning targeting the Chasers repeatedly before their coach, his face brick-red, had flown at them and shouted for ten minutes. It was difficult to ignore him when he was five inches from their faces and screaming.
Maybe she ought to try it.
Sighing, Molly flew in a lazy figure eight, covering all three hoops. At least she was moving, even if she had nothing to do.
Fitz was currently having a screaming fit at a scowling Jinx, who'd had to be rousted from bed and brought forcibly to the pitch this morning and had promptly refused to do anything. He'd been napping on his broom until Fitz caught sight of him.
Molly closed her eyes briefly. She was still having a hard time believing she'd been so stupid at the pub. Clearly drinking that much firewhisky was a huge mistake. It hadn't felt like a mistake at the time.
Despite the raging hangover, she'd spent most of yesterday thinking about that kiss. It had been hard to take her mind off of it today, for that matter. Every time she closed her eyes, she remembered his lips on hers, and his crooked, drunk smile. She needed to stop thinking about it so she could work with him. He was her coach, not a potential boyfriend, dammit.
The object of her thoughts flew by, and she stopped her figure eight.
“No one is throwing the Quaffle at you,” he said, and she rolled her eyes at him for stating the obvious.
“You're joking. I hadn't noticed.”
His eyes flicked to her mouth, and it made her think of that kiss again, which made her toes curl a bit.
“Stop that,” she told him.
“Looking at me like that. Go coach.”
He looked at her mouth again, then said, “Dammit,” and flew off.
The next day didn't go any better. Once again, no one threw penalties at Molly, so she did her own speed sprint drills, pretending there were Quaffles flying at the hoops and hoping this would actually help her technique. She'd be damned if she went and enchanted a spare Quaffle to make up for the team ignoring her. The Beaters weren't speaking to the Chasers, the Chasers weren't speaking to anyone, and Fitz seemed to have lost his temper completely and was only communicating by shouting abuse at everyone.
Except her. He was still looking at her like he wanted to kiss her again. It was very distracting.
By Thursday, Molly wanted to scream with frustration, both at Fitz for making it impossible for her to stop thinking about that kiss, and at the team for making any sort of practice impossible. They were playing the Caerphilly Catapults on Saturday and Molly was having a great deal of dour thoughts about their chances. The team was even less cohesive now than they had been before playing the Magpies.
No one spoke to her in the locker room Thursday afternoon, and she sat listening to the lot of them grumbling and generally whinging about their shoddy coach, shoddy team, and shoddy pitch. Molly sat on the bench in front of her locker, still wearing her robes, and wanted to shout at the lot of them just like Fitz did.
But it wasn't helping things, and since she couldn't pick up and go back to Holyhead – not without breaking her contract and having to embarrass herself at admitting failure, not to mention leaving the Prides in the lurch with no Keeper – she was just going to have to make the best of things.
She slipped out of the locker room, sure that they were grumbling about her as soon as she was out of earshot, and walked down the hallway to Fitz's office.
He had a bottle of firewhisky on his desk. It was still corked, the red wax seal intact. Fitz was resting his chin on his hands, contemplating the bottle.
Molly leaned against the doorframe and gave him a look.
“This week is crap,” he mumbled without moving.
She sighed and sat down in the chair opposite him, curling her legs up underneath her. “Shouting at everyone isn't gaining their loyalty back.”
“I never had their loyalty.” His eyes closed briefly, and then he looked up at her again, his gaze burning into her. “I think you did. I'm sorry about that.”
“There you go, apologizing again. I'll start to think you're ill if you keep it up.”
He gave her a half-smile, but the levity didn't stick. “I have an overpowering urge to hex everyone on the team.”
No kidding. “You've been an arse again this week.”
“I know. I can't help it. They could have played better and they didn't. And instead of suiting up and shouldering the responsibility, doing better next time, they blamed it on you and spent this week wasting all of our time playing worse than ever.” Fitz sat up. “It's pissing me off.”
Molly watched him put the bottle of firewhisky on the shelves behind him, setting it carefully beside an old Quaffle that had been signed in gold paint by all the Magpies who'd been on Fitz's team before his injury.
He hadn't mentioned that the Prides had blamed him for their defeat as well. Either he thought he deserved it, or he was only angry that they were blaming her. She told her body not to get too excited about this, but her emotions weren't listening. Shut up, she advised her hormones.
“We don't have time to do anything. We play the Catapults the day after tomorrow. There's no time to get better or to stop them hating either of us.”
“I know.” Fitz ran a hand through his hair, ruffling the dark strands so they stood on end, and blew out a long breath. “A party at your flat isn't going to fix this by some miracle, is it?”
Molly shook her head. “Unless you've got some sort of Miracle Potion up your sleeve, probably not.”
“Is there such a thing?” he asked hopefully.
“No. If there were, it'd be a banned substance by the League anyway.” She watched him in silence for a moment, then said, “We're going to lose to Caerphilly.”
“We can't think like-”
“Riordan,” she interrupted in a quiet voice. He subsided at her use of his first name, and she went on as clearly and gently as she could, “We are going to lose to Caerphilly.”
He didn't argue any further. He was probably well aware of it. “McCormack's going to sack the lot of us.”
“This week really is crap,” Molly remarked, her tone almost wistful.
Despite the overall crappiness of the week's training, Molly wasn't feeling as dour as expected Saturday afternoon as they arrived in Caerphilly to play the Catapults. She hadn't been back to Wales since she'd left Holyhead, and it was nice to return to familiar lands. Oh, she was still certain they were going to lose to the Catapults, but somehow she felt it wouldn't be so bad this time. Maybe they'd lose by a smaller margin, or in a less embarrassingly short time. Maybe they'd show up well even in defeat.
Maybe she was getting used to failure, she thought ruefully as the team pulled on their robes in the Catapults' guest locker room.
No one spoke, and they all shuffled to the pitch in slightly uncomfortable silence. Fitz joined them as they lined up in the small tunnel from which they would make their flying entrance, and after the familiar glance at Molly, he cleared his throat. The Beaters didn't look him in the eye, but the Chasers seemed to be paying attention. Jinks was staring off into space, probably hung over and contemplating when his contract ended.
“Just do your best today, all right?” Fitz said gruffly. “Try not to get flattened.”
Molly rolled her eyes at this pep talk, and Fitz slouched off to the box where the coaches and managers watched the game. He didn't seem optimistic, but then neither did the team.
The whistle blew, and Molly, as team captain, led the way onto the field, doing her best to smile and wave at the crowd, just in case anyone was still supporting them.
The Catapults were not as highly ranked in the league as the Magpies, but they were still a good team. Molly reckoned her block rate at the hoops was over seventy-five percent, and Zara managed several goals in the first half. Whenever Molly glanced up, Jinks actually seemed to be looking for the Snitch. She had to concentrate on the Chasers too much to keep an eye on what the Beaters were up to, but her I attention cost her.
Halfway through the game, Molly had just zipped over to the left hoop to block the Quaffle, and when she turned her broom, a Bludger hit her in the upper arm, the impact spinning her around on her broom. The pain shot up her neck, radiating out in waves, and she gritted her teeth. There was no one to relieve her, and they couldn't play with no Keeper, so she drew a deep breath in and tried to ignore it.
The referee blew the whistle, and both teams drew to a halt in the air. Molly looked down to see the ref had the Quaffle, and was flying toward her with Fitz behind him.
They both hovered on their brooms next to her. The lines of stress around Fitz's mouth had deepened.
“Are you able to continue play?” the referee asked, just a hint of concern tinging his voice.
“I'm fine,” she told him brusquely.
“You can see the Healer if you need it-” began Fitz.
“We don't have a reserve Keeper,” Molly interrupted. “If I leave the pitch, play continues without me, and that means our hoops are unprotected. I'm fine. I'll go to the Healer after the game.”
Fitz stared at her for a moment, and for once he kept his eyes on hers. After a few beats of silence, he nodded, and jerked his head sideways to the ref, who followed him off the pitch before blowing the whistle to resume play.
Playing through the pain wasn't easy, and her block rate suffered. She let in more goals than she stopped, and ignoring it grew harder and harder to do as the hours passed and the game continued. She lost count of how many saves she'd missed. The Prides were scoring as well, with Zara making some excellent penalty shots, but it wasn't enough, and the Catapults drew further and further ahead of the Prides.
Molly's bicep protested as she scraped a save by a hair's breadth, and tossed the Quaffle sideways at Beathan, who tucked it under her arm and flew off. Molly pressed her lips together and took a moment to rub her arm, wishing someone could have taken over for her. It would be a quick Healing spell, but in those fifteen minutes she was with the Healers, the Catapults could make a dozen new goals. She didn't want to take the chance.
Four hours into the game, Jinks flew straight into the knot of Chasers fighting over possession of the Quaffle, sending them scattering, and as the Quaffle fell, Molly saw a flash of gold in the air beside it and breathed a huge sigh of relief.
Jinks's capture of the Snitch put them only seventy points behind Caerphilly. They left the field, and the pain in Molly's arm distracted her from feeling too defeated. A Healer was waiting in the locker room and took her off to fix her arm up.
By the time she got back in the locker room, Fitz and McCormack were standing just inside the door while the team sat around the benches, still in their robes. No one was speaking. Molly took a seat next to Jinks and wondered if she'd come in time for Fitz's shouting fit or had just missed it.
“Arm all better?” McCormack asked, nodding to Molly.
“Good as new.”
Fitz had his arms folded across his chest, staring down at the floor. She could see the muscles in his jaw clench, but it looked like nerves, not anger. It dawned on Molly that this locker room visit hadn't been his idea.
McCormack, on the other hand, was red-faced. Whether that was from anger, embarrassment, or both, Molly had a feeling they were about to find out.
“You're all playing like crap,” McCormack barked. “Better than last time, but not good enough. And I think I know why. Dissension in the ranks isn't good for a healthy unit, and you lot need to act as a unit. So with that in mind, I've booked you lot into the Silver Skies Sorcerer's retreat next week. You'll spend a week living together and developing trust in a healthy environment.”
Molly's brows drew together. That hadn't been what she'd expected to hear. It didn't sound like the sort of thing she wanted to do, either. A week in even closer proximity was bound to make the team degenerate into outright anarchy.
No one else seemed to have expected it either, because the team immediately stated grumbling under their breath, all except Jinks, who groaned loudly.
“Why do we have to go to a bloody retreat?”
“So you can learn to be a team,” McCormack snapped. “You're like a pack of wild dogs right now, all growling at each other instead of working together. The retreat is mandatory. If you don't like it,” she went on over a chorus of even louder groans, “there's the door. Good luck finding a team to hire you after your performance at the last two games.”
The room was silent now. Molly could feel her cheeks flaming. She glanced around; everyone else looked embarrassed as well. They were all too aware that they'd played badly. No one would hire a player from the Prides team, not now.
McCormack stalked out, leaving the ringing silence behind her. Molly looked down at her feet, trying to stop her blush.
“You heard her,” Fitz said quietly then. His arms were still crossed, but he was looking round at the team now. “Report Sunday evening at six at the pitch, we'll Floo together.”
Zara spoke up then. “Are you coming too, Coach?”
He nodded. “All of us. See you tomorrow.”
His eyes met Molly's briefly, and he walked out of the locker room, leaving the team to look at each other in embarrassment.
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