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Off the Rails by water_lily43175
Chapter 60 : sixty
 
Rating: MatureChapter Reviews: 14


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There was a peculiar atmosphere in training in the week approaching the final. It was an interesting mixture of joy, trepidation and enthusiasm, along with an eager curiosity – this was a new experience to all of us – and almost relief; this time next week it would all be over with.

And that was an odd thought in itself. This time next week it would be the eve of September. Quidditch in Britain would be finished for the year, and players would be putting their feet up and either savouring the start of the off-season, or, if they'd signed short-term contracts, packing in preparation.

More and more players were securing their deals. Cato was joining Ryan and Della in heading to Australia, having signed for the Woollongong Warriors. Cleo was going in the opposite direction, and would be plying her trade in Brazil.

“We figured we need to test ourselves a bit,” she explained to me. “We can’t rely on being able to play together forever. If something happened to one of us, it’d screw us both up. So we’re pushing the boundaries a bit, giving things a go without each other. It’ll be weird, because I don’t think I’ve done anything without Cato before. But it’ll be fun. Besides,” she said with a grin, “one of us might stumble across the elusive Uncle Ludo along the way.”

We’d all heard the stories about Ludo Bagman, their grandfather’s brother, who nobody had seen in over thirty years. Dad had told us that he’d put his trust in the wrong species, and that had led to his downfall.

“He was a bloody moron,” had been Uncle Ron’s version of events. I knew who I preferred to hear the stories from.

Being related to someone with an embarrassing back-story didn't bother the twins. Most of those who remembered Bagman didn't even acknowledge that part of his life anyway, preferring to remember him as the Beater who'd played so well for the Wasps all those years ago. Besides, the twins were now famous in their own right. So they treated the story as an amusing anecdote to tell at social gatherings, hence Cleo's joke about it now.

“I’m sure I could nab you a contract, if you fancied it?” she suggested.

I grimaced.

“No chance, last I heard of Astrid-the-alcoholic she’d shacked up with a guy in Rio.”

Cleo snickered. Everyone knew of the disastrous ex-fling that was Astrid. In fact, Cleo had probably been at the function where Astrid had thrown the canapés, and even if she hadn’t been there, she’d have heard about it. Everyone knew that story.

“Fair enough,” she said, still smirking. “I’ll be sure to let you know if I come across her. Where are you headed, then?”

I shrugged.

“No idea. I guess Brie and I will sort it out next week. I don’t want to bother her this week, it’s ... well, it’s awkward.”

All through the World Cup, it hadn’t even crossed my mind this could happen. I wasn’t sure if Brigid had realised it either. But now her brother was due to play her best friend in the Final. Had I not been playing for England, I knew she’d have no qualms supporting her brother and country. But it wasn’t that simple now. She’d hardly want to see me on the losing side, but the thought of her beloved Ireland losing was unthinkable. She’d congratulated me after the win against Peru, but hadn’t approached me since – or any of the Weasley clan for that matter, according to Roxanne.

It was a shame, but I knew she was probably feeling stuck between a rock and a hard place, and if remaining distant made things easier for her, I was fine with it. Besides, it would only last a few more days.

“What happens when you win, though?” Maddie asked later that night.

I’d finally found the time to make it to the flat the girls and Kit had moved into a few weeks previously. Kit was out with his girlfriend, but Lily and Maddie provided more than enough company.

If we win,” I corrected firmly.

“If, then.” She rolled her eyes. “Point is, she’ll probably be heartbroken for Ryan. And if you end up on the losing side – which you won’t be – then she might find it awkward being around you for a while.”

“I’m sure we’ll be fine,” I said confidently. “Our friendship transcends sporting rivalry. She’ll be happy for whoever wins and sorry for whoever loses, it’s as simple as that. She just feels guilty, having split loyalties.”

“Maybe you’ll have to go abroad afterwards, to get away,” Maddie said with a cheeky grin.

Lily sighed slightly, and shook her head in exasperation at her friend. Maddie ignored her. It was normal service.

“Where will you go?” Maddie continued.

I was beginning to get annoyed with the constant questioning on the matter. Not that I let it show; it wasn’t her fault that people were curious.

“No idea.” I shrugged. “Somewhere on the continent, I guess. No further though; long-distance travel’s a hassle at the best of times.”

She frowned.

“Surely it can’t be that bad. I mean, you guys have magic, surely it’s not too hard to get to, say, Australia?”

“You’d be surprised. The only way to get there is by Portkey, and those are expensive. You have to book them a while in advance, too. Magic can’t do everything, you know.”

She grimaced and got to her feet, heading out of the room without a word.

I frowned, and turned to Lily.

“What’s got her wand in a knot?”

“Cato Bagman,” she sighed. “He’s off to Australia, isn’t he? They’ve ... well, they’ve gotten quite close. They write to each other a lot these days, you know.”

I cocked my head.

Write? As in, letters?”

“Yep. Owl post and all. Says something, don’t you think?”

It certainly did. Maddie had always taken the piss out of the wizarding world’s “archaic” form of communication, which was no surprise when she was so used to phones and the absurd web thing Muggles used on their computers. If she was actually penning letters to Cato, let alone sending them by owl, she must like him a lot.

“It’s an awkward time for him to head abroad. She wants to see more of him, and she was hoping she’d get a chance after the World Cup. But he’ll be on the other side of the world for at least three months, and she hadn’t realised just how hard it is to get there. I told her Portkeys were hard to get hold of, of course, but she didn’t believe me. Or at least, she didn’t want to believe me. Hearing the same thing from you has just driven it home. She’s busy herself, with her training and all these tournaments she’s trying to qualify for, but I think she was hoping she could maybe visit him on the odd weekend. But it’s not at all realistic. Poor Mads. I’ve never seen her this crazy about a guy before.”

I felt a pang of sympathy for the girl.

“It’s awkward all round, really, isn’t it?” I said quietly. “Quidditch is a pretty full on career, and I expect her stuff’s pretty time-consuming too, not to mention she’s living in the Muggle world...”

“Awkward’s certainly the word for it,” she agreed. “Oh well. Make the final a short one, will you? Then at least he’ll have a few days free before he heads off.”

I grinned.

“I’ll have a word with the teammates for you, I’m sure they’ll be more than happy to oblige. Anyway, how’s work going?”

She pulled a face.

“Let’s just say, the Muggles in the Prime Minister’s office think I’m a personal advisor to him. Which I am, I suppose – but they obviously don’t have a clue it’s about magic, so to them I’ve just waltzed into a top job straight out of school. I can’t say they’re too happy about me apparently leapfrogging them.”

“I’ve told you, Lil, ignore them.” Maddie returned to the living room. “Or put toads in their desks.”

“I’m sure that’ll go down really well with the Ministry,” she pointed out. “I’ll be fine, I’ve learned to ignore people like that.”

“What’s the Minister like?” I asked curiously. “The Muggle one, I mean.”

Lily groaned.

“Still struggling to come to terms with it all,” she said. “He’s not been in power long and I don't think he's completely grasped the situation yet. Doesn’t seem to realise we’ve been around as long as Muggles have. He appears to think we’ve invaded or something and are taking over. It’s not an easy viewpoint to work alongside. I can see why they wanted a Squib to work with him. It might help our working relationship if he’s not worried about me turning him into a frog or something at every second.”

“We’ve invaded?” I spluttered. “I – what an idiot-”

“It’s a difficult thing to come to terms with, James!” she reasoned.

“Maddie and Kit managed,” I pointed out, gesturing at Maddie, who was throwing Lily’s Quaffle up in the air as we spoke.

“Different people handle things differently. Bear in mind he’s running the Muggle country, which is bad enough in itself. Then on his first day he learns about this whole new world-” Maddie started singing a song I vaguely recognised as one she’d taught my teapot – “and he suddenly has to juggle his responsibilities with this whole universe he never knew-”

“A dazzling place he never knew,” Maddie put in, squealing as Lily picked up a cushion and hit her in the face with it.

“It’s a good thing I have such mature housemates to come home to, isn’t it?” she said dryly.

I grinned.

“You got everything set up how you want it now?”

“We’ve got the Quidditch Channel,” Maddie supplied.

“And that was a nightmare to install,” Lily added. “Given that the cloak function is usually operated by magic. And we obviously need to be able to hide it, because aside from anything else Kit expects to have Imogen round a lot.”

“They’ve had to do a voice control system for us,” Maddie continued. “They were a bit iffy about that, said what happens if someone says the trigger unknowingly, but then we pointed out that the likelihood of an unknowing Muggle saying ‘Quidditch Channel on’ is slim – oh, sod off!” she shouted at the television, as the channel appeared in response to her words.

“Quidditch Channel off,” Lily said sharply, leaning forwards to turn the television off with the remote. “It does have that slight drawback; when you turn the channel on, you turn the television itself on. Doesn’t work the other way though. We’ve figured it’s best to keep the channel off when we’re not watching it, because you never know who might turn the telly on and find it by accident. I reckon we should be okay, though. The bigger issue is keeping things like the Quaffle and the pumpkin juice hidden.”

Quaffles didn't look overly magical, but the Pennifold charm on them defied gravity, so they were best kept out of the sight of Muggles. Pumpkin juice was slightly less problematic, but given its rarity in the Muggle world it was probably wise to keep it hidden.

“It’s owl post that’s the big one, though.” Maddie was still throwing and catching the Quaffle as she spoke. “We can turn off the telly, we can hide magical photos and objects – so long as we don’t get a surprise visitor, and people won’t generally turn up uninvited because our working hours are so crazy, nobody ever knows when any of us will be in. Anti-Apparition wards and staying off the Floo network will prevent any surprise magical visitors. But there's no way of stopping an owl from turning up. The Ministry are meant to be contacting Lily in Muggle-friendly ways, but you never know if they’ll remember to do that, and then there’s personal correspondence as well...”

She tailed off, and I suspected she was thinking of Cato.

“But we can only do our best, you know?” Lily finished. “Yes, we’re living in the Muggle world, but then so do you, so does anyone else who lives in London, except those in Diagon Alley. It’s just our visitors are more likely to be Muggles.”

“Namely Imogen, Grace and my family,” Maddie sighed.

“You not going to tell any of them?” I asked.

Lily grimaced.

“It’s difficult. With Immy and Gracie ... well, Maddie and Kit have known for nearly four years about magic; how on earth am I supposed to explain why I’ve kept them in the dark for so long? The longer I leave it, the worse it gets. I want them to know, but ... I don’t want to risk them taking it badly.” She looked so upset I wished I hadn’t raised the question.

“It’s a bit awkward, what with Kit being with Immy now,” Maddie added, “but it’s Lily’s decision not his, so he has to lump it unfortunately. As for my family, they don’t need to know. Sure, Lottie and Robbie are chummy with Lils, but they’re not close enough to warrant telling them. You know better than I do what the Ministry are like with the Statute. They may not be quite as strict as they used to be as to which Muggles get to know about magic, but they still don’t like it.”

My thoughts turned to the files the Obliviators had on record. I wondered if Lily and Maddie knew their personal information was documented in the MAC.

“Sometimes I wonder what it would be like without the Statute,” Maddie mused; this time I knew she was thinking of Cato. “But then I remember Rosalind exists, and I reconsider. Imagine if she knew about magic.”

I shuddered at the thought. There were enough witches of Cassie Lynch and alcoholic Astrid’s ilk around, without the likes of Rosalind joining in as well.

“Cassie Lynch will be at the final, won’t she?” Lily echoed my thoughts.

“Don’t remind me,” I murmured. “Aside from anything else, that reminds me I’ll be playing against her brothers-” I fell silent, realising what I’d said.

“Oh, is the team decided?” Lily’s eyes widened excitedly. “You didn’t say-”

“It’s not decided,” I said hurriedly. “If I play, I’ll be playing against the Lynches-”

“Oh, Jim.” She smiled fondly at me. “You’ll play.”

***

My slip of the tongue was not, thankfully, premature. Demelza revealed the team the next day, and it was unchanged from the semi-final. It was much as expected; first choice Keeper, Seeker and Beaters. Tamsin and Emily. And me. Although it seemed the only person who didn’t expect me to play was me these days. Even McLaggen – who always thought he should play – put up less of a fight than usual when the team was announced.

Trying to work out how to play against Ireland was tough. One thing was for certain; the spectators wouldn’t get an overly exciting match. In fact, I wasn’t sure there could be a much worse bill in terms of entertainment value than England versus Ireland. We knew their players as well as we knew our teammates, we’d played opposite them that many times in the League. We knew their every strength and weakness, and they knew ours. We knew their favoured plays and tactics, and vice versa. More than ever, the match was going to come down to the Snitch capture, because there was no chance of one Chaser attack overpowering the other. In fact, there was almost no point in us Chasers and Keepers taking to the skies at all on Saturday; we might as well just leave it to the Seekers to fight it out with the Beaters as company.

Almost.

Because the Beaters in question were the Bagman twins and the Lynch twins, none of whom had any qualms about playing dirty. We knew neither of the Lynches would have forgotten Cato and Cleo’s tactic against them in the last League match. The four of them would be going all out to knock the opposition off their brooms and out of the match. As such, that was pretty much the only solid tactic we had so far; stay on your broom. With a full compliment, neither Chaser attack would be able to make inroads on the other, but remove a player from the equation and suddenly things would become a lot less even.

Aside from that, I wasn’t sure what Tamsin, Emily and I would do. We knew how to counter most of Ireland’s plays; Aisling Quigley and Fiona O’Sullivan had played together since Hogwarts and could near-enough read each other’s minds by now, so breaking them up usually went some way to nullifying them. They also used Ryan’s speed and bulk to the maximum, which meant we’d have to somehow slow him down. Luckily for me, I knew every last inch of his flying technique, and was reasonably certain how we could kill off the threat.

Unfortunately, he knew my flying technique inside-out too. And they knew we relied on Tamsin’s unpredictability. Admittedly we had a slight advantage in that they couldn’t predict unpredictability – although neither could we most of the time – but they would know to target Tamsin and put a stranglehold on her creativity.

“It’s a difficult one,” Tamsin said slowly as the three of us sat down to dissect tactics. “Ordinarily I’d say they know how we normally play, so we should shake things up a bit – but it’s too risky. We can’t put the game out of Jessica’s reach. She knows it’s all but a straight shoot-out between her and Brianna for the Snitch. We just need to play it safe, and make sure we all stay on our brooms and keep level with Ireland. And thank Merlin McLaggen’s not playing or he’d be showing off in an attempt to be Player of the Match and he’d probably lose it for us.”

Emily and I snickered.

“We just need to go back to basics, trust our instincts, and keep our heads,” Tamsin summed up. “And let me tell you this, I can’t think of two people I’d rather be playing alongside. Win or lose, you kids have done me proud.”

She flung an arm round each of us and squeezed tight.

“We can do this,” she said confidently.

And I believed her.

***

Two days before the match, Dad surprised me with a visit. But that wasn’t his only surprise.

“I’ve got a little something for you.” He grinned and pulled out what looked to be-

“Tickets.” I frowned and took them from him. “What-”

And then I read the top ticket, and my jaw dropped.

“I didn’t ask for them, I was given them.” He looked slightly awkward, as he usually did when after receiving perks like this. “I was told it’s because you’ll be playing, but I don’t think they have enough seats in the Top Box for every player’s family...”

Four tickets. Four tickets for the Top Box.

“I-” I looked up at him, almost speechless. “But – what do you mean, they’re for me? I don’t need tickets, I’ll be on the pitch, I-”

“They’re for you to give out,” he said with a smile.

I frowned again.

“But – four tickets – that’s enough for you and Mum and-”

“Your mother and I have already seen one final in the Top Box,” he said. “We discussed it, and decided it was right to let you choose who gets them. And ... well, I can’t see Freddie or Carlotta turning them down.”

Of course. Four tickets, that was enough for Albus, Lily, Freddie and Carlotta...

“I know you probably want five, so you can offer one to Brigid too,” he said awkwardly, “but I don’t think they had any more left, I expect they’ve given me as many as they possibly can ... but she’ll probably want to sit with her family, so hopefully she won’t mind.”

“No, you’re right.” I was still staring at the tickets. “She’ll want to sit with her parents, with the Irish, she’d feel terrible if she wasn’t with them...” I looked up, a huge smile on my face. “Thanks, Dad. You’re the best.”

He grinned, looking slightly abashed, and ruffled my hair.

“You’re welcome, Jim. Just make sure you win, make it all worthwhile.”



A/N: CHAPTER SIXTY?! What is this madness? If you've made it this far, then thank you, infinite times. And well done.

The song which Maddie references is obviously the wonderful A Whole New World from Aladdin, which I therefore do not own.

JK's threatening to give us some more info on the Quidditch World Cup. I swear, if any of it invalidates anything I've written in the last 60 chapters, I'm going to throw something. And cry. Lots.

(Edit: She did it. Things were thrown.)

And lastly, for those of you on the forums, I've finally gotten round to making a Meet the Author page. So if any of you have any questions about anything, feel free to head over and ask!


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