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Off the Rails by water_lily43175
Chapter 59 : fifty-nine
 
Rating: MatureChapter Reviews: 8


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“Peru are good...” Emily muttered.

“Mm-hmm,” I  responded.

Really good...”

“I know.”

“The best team left in the Cup...”

I sat up straight and turned to tell her to be quiet. I didn’t need to be told this would be our toughest opposition so far; I was already well aware of that.

But when I saw her face, I forgot everything I'd planned to say. And that was when I realised.

I was the least experienced player in the team, and I supposed I’d assumed that the others were all hardy, seasoned pros, to whom this kind of thing was old hat.

But ... England had never been this good, at least not for years and years. Emily hadn’t played in a World Cup semi-final before; this was the first time she had made it past the group stages. Tamsin was the only one of us who’d been playing long enough to have experienced knock-out Quidditch, against the toughest of the tough.

Emily had kept her composure, up until now. She had a good few years of pro Quidditch under her belt, including a World Cup, and knew how to handle pressure. But this was on a different level to anything either of us had experienced before. The stadium at Puddlemere was packed to the rafters – we could hear the noise clear as day from inside the dressing room – and the whole country was watching, expecting. This was a far cry from those days of Gryffindor versus Slytherin  at the Hogwarts stadium.

“Just ... just think of it as another game.” I wasn't sure if I was talking to Emily or myself. “Just another Quidditch match that we want to win. We ... we do this for fun, remember? We do this because we enjoy it...”

“They should really give out pamphlets on professional Quidditch when they do careers advice in Fifth Year,” she said glumly, "emphasising how the pressure and expectation will completely wipe all the fun out of playing.”  She sighed heavily, and sat upright. “But you’re right, Junior, we put ourselves through this for the love of the game. And that’s what we’ve got to do today. Go out there, play and enjoy.” She paused. “We’re going to get crucified if we lose, aren’t we?”

“Yup,” I agreed dolefully.

“Even though Peru are ranked above us.”

“Only two places,” I reminded her. “It’s not completely impossible. Besides, we beat Brazil, who beat Bulgaria, who are top of the rankings, so-”

“That technically makes us the best team in the world,” she finished with a wry chuckle. “Honestly, what do we sound like, Jim? Anyone would think we were going out there to face a dragon, not seven Peruvians. And even if we were facing a dragon – how did your dad tackle that one? He flew his heart out. Maybe we should take a leaf out of his book.”

For once, I didn’t mind the reference to Dad. I knew it wasn’t deliberate.

And besides, she had a point. Given the choice between the Peruvians or the dragon, I knew which I’d pick.

“It’s time,” Demelza called out, her voice hollow.

We got to our feet and grabbed our broomsticks. For a moment, it looked as if she wasn’t going to say anything to us, but eventually she spoke.

“I believe in you guys,” she said firmly. “I really do. You’re the best damn team I’ve ever coached by far. And whatever happens today, I’ll have no regrets. I’ll be prouder of you than words can say.”

“I know we can win this,” Michael spoke up, which was unusual, as he generally left the motivational talks to Demelza. “Just remember everything we’ve done in training, and take it out there onto the pitch. And don’t get lost in the moment, either. This is just another game against another team.”

Except it was a semi-final, and if we lost we’d have the whole of England on our backs. Apart from that, it was just another Quidditch match.

Michael led us out of the changing rooms as usual, and a wall of noise hit us as we passed through the doorway.

The Peruvians were waiting for us, and I cast a nervous eye over our opposition. They certainly didn’t look like dragons. In fact, they didn’t look that scary at all.

Catching my eye, Tamsin shot me a wink. I took a deep breath and cracked my neck.

We could do this. We could do this.

***

“You did it! You smashed it!”

A slightly green, but otherwise thoroughly healthy-looking Joshua Wadcock burst into the changing rooms, looking as elated as we all felt. Emily let out a squeal, and dashed forwards to hug her Puddlemere teammate.

“They let you out of quarantine, then?” Michael said with a grin.

“Yeah, they wanted to keep me in until I was the right colour, but I nagged and nagged at them to let me out in time to watch the match – but enough about me, you guys had an absolute blinder out there! Tammy, I haven’t seen you that pumped up in years!”

“It’s being around these kids that does it; their youth is infectious,” she grinned.

“Long may it continue! Now, where’s Cleo? I owe that girl a smacker...”

“Here!” she called from the corner. “I don’t know why I deserve the smooch, it was the Chasers who won it for us-”

“Indeed they were, but you’re the one who took McLaggen out, and for me that’s an infinitely bigger achievement than beating Peru!”

I snickered, as he enveloped her in a hug and planted a big kiss on her mouth. It was a sign of how hated McLaggen was that Cato didn’t so much as bat an eyelid at this act of gratitude.

“You’d better not still be contagious,” she laughed once her mouth was free. “You’re most welcome, it was the most satisfying moment of my career by far.”

“I don’t think he’s got long left with England,” Wadcock continued. “Not as a Chaser, at any rate. You’ve got some moves, Potter! Player of the Match!”

It was true; the official announcement had been made at the end of the match.

“It was a joint effort-” I began.

He snorted.

“Take the plaudits for once, mate, Merlin knows you deserve every word of praise you’re getting. Hurry up and retire will you, Tammy, so I can play with this kid?”

Tamsin shook her head in mock disbelief.

“You kids these days, no respect...” she began, before dissolving into fits of giggles as Emily, Jessica and Cato mobbed her.

I grinned, watching my teammates let off some steam. In a couple of days’ time we’d be wound up as tightly as springs again, but for now, it was all about savouring the moment.

***

Most of the crowd had left by the time we emerged from the changing rooms, the only people left being family members and press. That number slowly whittled down as media obligations were fulfilled and congratulations were said, until only Carlotta and I were left. I was in no hurry to get back to the flat, so we sat at the top of the stand for a while, just chatting. Our time together had been somewhat reduced as the World Cup gathered steam, so it was nice to be able to  relax with her for a bit. I supposed it was a mark of how far we’d come, that we were both content with sitting outside and talking rather than spending the time in my bedroom as we’d been so inclined to do a few months previously.

The extra pitches at Puddlemere were being removed; with only one semi-final and the final itself left, the extra capacity wasn’t needed. It was an odd thought, that after all the build-up, all the worrying and pressure, the tournament was already close to an end.

“Will you miss this, when it’s over?” Carlotta asked curiously.

It was something I’d not really thought about, so it was a minute or so before I answered.

“Yes ... and no. I mean, playing on the highest stage of all, representing your country ... it’s what every Quidditch player dreams of, and you can’t beat that, you know? But at the same time ... well, I’ll still be playing Quidditch. That’s why I play, because I enjoy it. And I know I’ll always have that, for as long as I can still sit on a broomstick at any rate.” I paused. “It’ll be nice to get away from the pressure as well. It can get bad enough in big games for the Falcons, but England ... well, it’s on another level. It makes me feel ... stifled. Trapped in my own head. And I don’t like it.”

She squeezed my thigh comfortingly.

“I think you’re dealing with things wonderfully. Just don’t bottle it all up. Just one more week, then you can let go.”

I smiled at the thought. I felt like I’d been under a constant pressure since my return to the Falcons – and even before my meltdown, when I’d been fighting so hard for an England call-up. The me that had attended Dominique’s wedding at the start of the year seemed almost like a different person.

Not that that was a bad thing. I’d matured a lot in that time.

“What about you?” I asked her, pulling myself out of my musings and returning to the topic of the World Cup.

“Well, we’ve had a lot more business in the restaurant recently.”

“What, from wizards?”

“I can’t be entirely sure, because they’d hardly advertise it if they were, but we have had a lot more business than usual, even for the summer, and we are the closest Muggle eating establishment to Diagon Alley. It’s been fun, trying to guess whether a group of guests is magical or not.”

“And how have you gotten on with that?” I grinned.

“Well, I don’t know, do I? It’s not like I could turn round to them at the end and ask them. But sometimes there have been tell-tale signs, like being unsure about some foods on the menu or wary of the beer when most men don’t care what it is so long as it’s wet and alcoholic – oh, and trying to pay with Galleons, that’s a big hint.”

I groaned.

“People do that?”

“I’ve tried to come to the rescue any time I’ve noticed it, like a good citizen does,” she said. “Really, your Ministry should be offering me a reward for helping to uphold the Statute.”

I raised an eyebrow.

“Bit ironic, don’t you think?”

“But I’m James Potter’s girlfriend, of course I should be allowed to know everything about magic!” she said in a snobbish tone of voice.

I let out a snort, and elbowed her in the side.

“Don’t push your luck, Martínez.”

I’d realised a while ago just how irritated she got when people dropped the Spanish part of her surname. So I liked to make a concerted effort to do the exact opposite. 

Fortescue Martínez, boy, and don’t you forget it,” she scolded, elbowing me back.

I grinned, pulled her close, and kissed her forehead.

“Like you’d let me,” I said fondly. “Come on, let’s get back to mine, and you can cook me dinner.”

***

The next day Ireland met Russia in the second semi-final. It was a repeat of the semi-final from four years ago, and we were hoping the result wouldn’t be the same. Russia had shocked Ireland in that match, although the final had proved one game too many for them as they lost to Uruguay.

The home crowd were out in force again for this one, although admittedly there were a lot of Irish fans here in their own right. But the combination of the two meant the ground at Falmouth was overwhelmed with green.

The match was somewhat of a family outing, with Mum, Dad, Albus and Lily all here. It was a rare occurrence for all five of us to watch a Quidditch match together as I was usually playing, and even if I wasn’t, Dad and Albus often couldn't get off work. Maddie and Kit were here with us, but Carlotta wasn’t; she’d booked next Sunday off work for the final, and couldn’t secure two free Sundays in a row.

Everyone expected the game to be a tough one. Russia were, according to the rankings, the worst of the four semi-finalists, but they were only one spot below us and two below Ireland. They were the team you could always rely on to spring a surprise, one way or another. Ireland certainly couldn’t afford to take them lightly.

Knock-out Quidditch was, in some ways, a completely different game to league Quidditch. In the league it was the points that counted, and rarely did a team just play to win. This meant you could predict whether or not a match would be a long one; if a team planned to rack up their points like we had against the Arrows, or if a team needed to draw the match out to ensure a certain points difference.

In knock-out Quidditch, of course, the win was all that mattered, so the Seekers had that rare freedom to catch the Snitch right from the off. It made it much harder to predict how long a match would be, because so long as both teams were within fifteen goals of each other, either Seeker could catch it at any time. In some senses it made watching more thrilling, because anything could happen at any moment.

It was a wonderful chance for Chasers to flex their muscles, too. Emily, Tamsin and I had had that luxury yesterday, and I’d actually enjoyed the game. From the outside, it seemed as though there ought to be less pressure for Chasers in a knock-out match, but having played the quarter and the semi, I could now vouch that this was not the case. That fear of losing still gripped every single inch of bone and sinew, ate away at even the most confident of players. There was so much riding on these games that losing wasn’t an option, and complacency was the easiest way of slipping behind by fifteen goals or more. We had to perform, or we’d be failures.

So  the match began in earnest. And continued in that fashion. An hour or so in, I left my seat and headed to the Butterbeer stall, bumping into Della, whose presence here wasn’t a surprise.

 “Junior!” she cried out in her booming voice. “Well done yesterday, you were awesome! I’d have hung back to see you, but it looked like half the world had the same idea so I headed off. Nice work though, I think that’s the best I’ve ever seen you play!”

I grinned awkwardly at the praise.

“Thanks, Dell. It was a good match, wasn’t it?”

“I’ll say. Can I get you a drink?”

“Na, don’t worry, I’m getting a round in for the family. Maybe I’ll hold to that though, you can buy me something stronger once I’m back on alcohol.”

“No worries. Bottle of Heidelburg?”

I winced at the thought of the killer mead.

“Maybe give me a week or two to get back into the swing of things first. Anyway, you and Murph are both off to the Thunderers, I hear?”

“Yeah, we are,” she said with a slight smile. “You don’t mind, do you, that I told them you weren’t interested? I figured you’d be okay with it, given you told me you weren’t leaving Europe...”

“Oh, that’s fine." I waved a hand airily. Then her comment registered properly, and I frowned. “Wait – you told them? I thought Brigid must have said something. But ... I never got round to telling her I didn’t want to leave, did I? But then ... why were you talking to them about it before they offered the contract? Why would they just approach you, if they wanted all three of us?”

She shifted awkwardly in her seat.

“Yeah, that’s a funny one, isn’t it?” she said with a nervous laugh. “If I tell you, you have to promise you won’t say a thing to anyone. Especially not Ryan.”

“I won’t breathe a word,” I vowed.

“They, um ... they didn’t necessarily want all three of us. They ... they asked for just me, at first. But I asked them ... I mean, we work well as a team, don’t we? I figured they might want more than just one of us...”

I raised an eyebrow.

“I get the feeling you’re trying to avoid getting to the point.”

She sighed heavily.

“I just wanted us all to be able to stick together, you know? I mean, it’s cool that you don’t want to go, you should do your own thing and that’s fine – not that I mean I don’t want you there as well, because I would, but Ryan will still be there with me and that’s ... that’s enough...” She swallowed, and turned to look out at the ongoing match. “It was probably a really stupid move. I bet there’s loads of surfer chicks out there, which he’ll probably love, I expect they’re just his type...”

Finally, finally, the Knut dropped. I had to fight hard to stifle a laugh.

“I don’t know,” I said in a casual tone. “I think he prefers loud blonde Germans, to be honest-”

She turned to look back at me so fast her hair nearly took my head off.

What? I mean ... I don’t know what you mean-”

“You like him!” I tried to keep my voice down – which was hard, given the excitement I was feeling. “You asked for the Thunderers to sign him too ... bloody hell, Dell, that’s one hell of a contract perk! They must have really wanted you, if they were willing to sign him too-”

“They would have taken you, as well,” she said hurriedly, “it would have looked a bit weird if you were up for going there but they only asked for two of us – but what do you mean, about his type...”

“Dell, love,” I said, amused, “if you can’t work it out when it’s staring you in the face, then I don’t know if you deserve to have someone spell it out to you.” I slung an arm round her shoulders and squeezed, and planted a kiss on her forehead. “Merlin, you two are going to have an eventful time of it.”

Judging by the smile that was now spreading across her face, she was thinking the same.

***

Three hours later, the match was still going strong. Ireland were in the lead by forty points, and the Snitch had shown its face a couple of times, only to disappear again. Dad had made noises of aggravation on both occasions as the Seekers missed their chance; he seemed to think he’d have made the catch.

Shortly after it had evaded the Seekers for the second time, he got up to get some food. I volunteered to go with him, wanting to stretch my legs again; they were still a bit stiff from yesterday’s match.

But on the way towards the food stall we were collared by a familiarly large figure.

“Harry, m’boy!” boomed Professor Slughorn. “And ... well, if it isn’t the man of the moment! Well played yesterday, James, always good to see my old pupils doing well ... you both must let me introduce you to a friend of mine...”

And before we knew it, we were both tucked under one of his arms – no mean feat, given we were both much taller than him – and he was steering us in the exact opposite direction to the food stall. I shot Dad an exasperated look across Slughorn’s rotund belly, but he just looked amused. I supposed if I’d had to deal with Slughorn as much as Dad had, I’d probably end up adopting the same resignation.

As it was, while I’d been in his Slug Club at school – and even with our cousins also in his clutches Albus and I had clearly been his favourites – I’d done my best to avoid him. Once I’d made the Quidditch team, practices had proved the ultimate excuse to miss his dinners. Michael Wood had been another unwilling member of the Slug Club, so he’d deliberately booked the pitch up for the same evenings as Slughorn’s dos. Ryan hadn’t escaped Slughorn’s notice either, but he found the parties amusing, so he’d had no real objection to attending them. By that time he became captain, however, Freddie,  Albus and Roxanne had joined me on the team, so Ryan had followed Michael’s lead in order to keep us quiet. When I’d received the captaincy badge after him, my main source of joy had had nothing to do with being handed the most senior position in my beloved house team. I was just relieved I had the power to ensure I could continue avoiding Slughorn.

It wasn’t that he was a horrible person. He was pleasant enough if he didn’t know your name, and couldn’t do enough to please you if you were related to a ‘somebody’. It was just that people who were attracted to fame, glory or success were my least favourite people.

“Here he is!” Slughorn said triumphantly, bringing us to a halt by a tall man I’d come across before. “This is Barnabus Deverill, he owns the Tutshill Tornadoes – won the League two-hundred-and-sixty-three times, you know – he sends me tickets all the time...”

I knew, of course, who Deverill was. One tended to run into Quidditch club owners when in the professional game. Still, I humoured Slughorn, mostly because I knew Dad would be disappointed if I said anything out of turn.

“And I’m sure these fine gents don’t even need an introduction!” Slughorn rounded off, squeezing my shoulders; I hid a wince.

“Indeed not.” Deverill smiled politely at us. “Pleasure to meet you, Mr Potter – and to meet you again, Mr Potter,” he added, nodding at me.

Slughorn ignored the reference to any previous meeting between Deverill and myself.

“Taught these two myself, I’m proud to say.” He puffed out his chest. “We got a very nice E in N.E.W.T Potions from you, didn’t we, James? And as for Harry here, well, I daresay we’d have gotten an Outstanding from you had you sat the exam! Yes, it was very satisfying to teach you both. And it’s so good to see ex-pupils doing well. You know, I often say that teaching is the most rewarding job one could have. After all, what could be more important than teaching our youth, spreading our knowledge?”

“I couldn’t agree with you more, Professor Slughorn,” Dad said pleasantly.

“Horace, my boy, call me Horace, all my good friends do. Of course, we’re going to have a vacancy at Hogwarts soon, poor Rolanda’s finally calling it a day ... why don’t you replace her, Harry m’boy? Why, you’d do a fine job! I’ve heard all about your days of running that illegal study group of yours, you did a fine job teaching your fellows by all accounts! And I’m sure you’d love an opportunity to get back on your broom again.”

Dad smiled, but I recognised it as his forced smile, the one he used when he was trying not to look as though he wanted to run away from the conversation.

“I’m not sure that’s the job for me. For a start, I wouldn’t want to leave the Auror department. And besides, what would Ginny do without me around?”

“You could always do it together,” I suggested suddenly, as the idea struck me. “Then you wouldn’t have to leave her at home.”

Dad glared at me and I winced and shrugged apologetically. But it was too late; Slughorn was off.

“What a fine idea; don’t you think so Barny? Two Potters at the school; why, what excitement that would be for the kids!”

“I’m not sure we would work well together,” Dad said, clearly trying to worm his way out of it.

“Nonsense, you’d be great!” Slughorn proclaimed. “What about you, young James? Think you could follow in your old man’s footsteps and teach at some stage?”

I blanched.

“What? Me? I’m playing, I couldn’t-”

“Don’t rule it out, m’boy! A more honourable job there never was! Well, except an Auror I suppose...” he added thoughtfully, squeezing Dad’s shoulders.

Deverill took advantage of Slughorn’s momentary silence.

“And how are things at the Falcons, James?” he asked me. “You’re getting on well there?”

“Very well,” I replied, grateful for the change of both subject and conversationalist. “It was amazing to win the League again this summer.”

“Indeed.” Deverill nodded slightly, and I prepared myself for the question which I knew would come next. “And do you see yourself staying at the Falcons?”

“You’re headhunting, Mr Deverill,” I observed.

He smiled, unabashed.

“I watched your match yesterday-”

“As did most of Britain,” I pointed out.

“Indeed,” he said again. “I’m sure we could find a place for you in our team at the Tornadoes, Mr Potter. I can offer you a very substantial wage, too, and perks-”

“That’s a very kind offer, Mr Deverill, but I’m not in it for the money,” I said flatly. “I play for the love of the game, and for my teammates. And I wouldn’t dream of leaving them for the world. Besides, I’ve just signed a contract extension, so I’m definitely not available.”

Although I still hadn’t signed it, I remembered now. Brigid was sitting on it, with the idea of negotiating a better deal if my demand increased. Well, it seemed as though that was the case, and I suspected this conversation would give her leverage in securing better terms. Not that I cared a jot. But it was her job to get good deals for her clients, and if it made her happy then I wasn’t going to stand in her way.

“Club loyalty, a rare thing to see in a player these days,” Deverill observed. “That is indeed ... most admirable.”

His tone of voice suggested it was also a most unwelcome attitude, at least from someone he was trying to poach from a rival club.

“I’m glad you think so, sir. I’m sure you seek those standards from your own players. It was nice to see you again – and wonderful to see you too, Professor Slughorn,” I added as I wormed my way out of his grasp, “but we really must be going, Dad and I are supposed to be getting food for the others-”

“Oh, the rest of you are here as well, are they?” Slughorn began; I groaned inwardly as I realised my mistake. “Do tell me, how is young Lily? I hear she’s left school now-”

“She’s very well, I’ll be sure to tell her you asked after her, have a lovely day!” I said quickly before darting off, Dad hot on my heels.

“Nice one,” he muttered, once we were out of earshot. “He’s like a leech, is Sluggy, even now.”

“It must have been like all his Christmases had come at once, seeing us both together,” I commented wryly.

“Indeed.” Dad imitated Deverill’s voice.

I snickered. “He was pulling out all the stops there, wasn’t he? Sneaky little blighter...”

“Didn’t fancy the Tornadoes, then?”

I pulled a face.

“Are you kidding? Having to see McLaggen in training every day? Sure, they have Tamsin, and Jessica, and little Ruby Ellerby, but nothing could make playing for the same club as McLaggen worth my while.”

He laughed loudly.

“You have my fullest sympathies,” he said. “But if it’s any consolation, his father was worse.”

“I’m not sure that’s possible.”

“Oh, trust me,” he said darkly. “It is.”

***

Ireland finally won, thanks to Brianna’s Snitch capture five hours in. The players’ overriding emotion wasn’t elation at reaching the final, but relief that the match was over. I felt a bit sorry for them, knowing how brutal long matches were, but there was a sense of joy in the back of my mind too; perhaps this would wear them out a bit more, and put us in good stead for the final?

The Final.

It hadn’t really sunk in all weekend. But now, as I lay in bed that night, it hit me like the Hogwarts Express.

We were in the Quidditch World Cup Final. England were in the final. Playing Ireland. McLaggen hadn’t played the last two matches, I’d been Player of the Match against Peru, Barnabus Deverill wanted me for the Tornadoes, Slughorn thought I’d make a good teacher...

As I slept that night, it felt as though my brain was on overload.


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