Chapter 9 : A Fine Line
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“What a perfect day!” she was chirping. She had the bag of blindfolds at her feet again.
The team looked, to a man, as if they would happily kill her. They were also hung over, with the notable exception of Jinks, who had the annoying ability to only get mild hangovers from which he could recover merely by eating a slice of toast.
“I'd pay good money for a decent cuppa,” murmured Beathan. “I swear I'm going to Apparate to town during lunch and beg door to door if I have to.”
“You know what I need?” put in Duff. “Some really greasy, salty chips. And tacos. Lots of tacos.”
“Shhh,” Fitz told them both, though the chips and tacos sounded pretty good to him, too.
Lefoque had started describing their activity for the morning, waving a blindfold about in one gloved hand as she spoke. “... then we'll all line up, and everyone puts a hand on the shoulder of the person ahead of them. I'll help you stay together with a Temporary Sticking Charm on your hands-”
Fitz had to suppress a chuckle. Maybe she wasn't as stupid as she seemed.
“- and then we'll go for a hike. After we're through, there will be another discussion evaluating how we felt during the blindfold hike, and everyone needs to participate. This exercise builds trust and teamwork.”
“And irritation,” said Bram Carmichael, not quite under his breath.
“Let's get started!” Lefoque said, her face still wreathed in a determinedly cheerful smile. Fitz wondered if they were starting to get to her. The thought made him feel a bit cheerful as well.
But Lefoque zeroed in on him then as if she could sense his burgeoning good mood.
“Let's have the coach lead the way,” she cooed, grabbing his hand and tugging him forward. The team immediately let out a round of catcalls and whistles.
“Oh yes, jolly good idea there,” Jinks called out.
Fitz gave him the evil eye over his shoulder. Jinks smiled innocently.
“And now our team captain, here, good, and now the Chasers-”
Lefoque was still organizing the team into a line, the Beaters next, then Jinks, and the reservists bringing up the rear, but Fitz's attention was divided now. Molly had fallen into the queue behind him, and she gave him a raised eyebrow and a smile that was more of a smirk. He wondered how many times he could stumble so she'd bump into him before she cottoned on to what he was doing.
“This is so ridiculous,” Zara was muttering behind Molly. She looked rather angry, and had been all morning. The tea had been just as sub-par as yesterday, and Zara was taking it hard that she didn't even have caffeine for her hangover. She had complained volubly during breakfast until Sid, a cold, wet cloth over his eyes, had told her to be quiet or get Silenced.
“If she doesn't come with us, let's hike into town and get some proper tea,” Molly suggested in a murmur. “And some Hangover-Curing Potion if they've got it.”
“That bloke who owns the pub must know how to brew it strong,” Zara said. She squinted down at the end of the line. “Oh, she really is doing a Sticking Charm, for crying out bloody loud...”
“I'll bet you ten Galleons she's coming along,” Fitz said, trying not to sound dour. “She's ready to blindfold the lot of us. Bet she wants to be our sighted leader.”
Sure enough, once everyone was Stuck to the person in front of them, Lefoque positioned herself next to Fitz. “I'll just give you gentle hints if you're steering toward anything you shouldn't.”
He felt her hand at his elbow, and heaved a sigh. There would be no Apparating to town for potions and tea this morning.
They set off slowly, bumping into each other as they moved. Fitz felt hyperaware of Molly's warm hand on his shoulder, her fingers resting lightly against the collar of his shirt. She'd made sure to put her hand on his uninjured side without being asked, and he was grateful that his injury hadn't needed to be brought up this morning. He'd been taking his potions regimen faithfully while at the retreat, so the shoulder wasn't bothering him more than usual this morning. For once, he was more concentrated on his uninjured side.
The Sticking Charm held her palm in place, and her fingers were free to spread out on his shoulder, digging in a bit when they stumbled. The warmth of her palm seeped through the fabric of his shirt. He could feel her fingertips gripping now as he adjusted their path at Lefoque's sudden hand at his elbow, guiding him left. Molly suddenly bumped into him with greater force, the full length of her body pressing into him for a moment before she recovered.
“Ouch,” Zara's voice came from behind.
“Sorry,” called out Bram. “That was me, I tripped over something.”
“Probably your own big feet,” said Mariah.
“Actually, I think you tripped over MY big feet,” Duff told them.
“Focus on the experience,” Lefoque said over top of the team's snickering. “Let your mind go blank and feel your partners in the line.”
“She means shut up,” Fitz called.
The team laughed even harder at that, and he heard Lefoque sigh beside him. He didn't bother to hide his grin; nobody could see him except Lefoque, and she already thought they were a load of idiots anyway.
“Stop grinning,” whispered Molly behind him.
“How'd you know I was grinning?” he asked, turning his head unconsciously toward her, though he couldn't see a thing.
“I just know. Knock it off and focus, before you lead us into a bog or a dragon's nest or something.”
The blindfolded hike lasted three hours. Fitz was fairly sure Lefoque was dragging it out because she was annoyed with them, but if she thought she could wear out a Quidditch team with a few hours of relatively easy hiking, she was dead wrong. These were athletes, not her usual Ministry bureaucrats. The hike hadn't tired them out, though it seemed to have cured the hangovers of at least half of them. They were cracking jokes nonstop at the back of the line, and there was more stumbling happening that Fitz knew had to be deliberate. He'd been whacked into by Molly about half a dozen times now as the team fell like dominoes with each stumble.
Eventually Lefoque seemed to admit defeat, and led them back to the retreat. The Sticking Charms were wearing thin, and it didn't take much effort for the lot of them to pull free. Lefoque took the blindfolds back, and Fitz blinked into the sun. It seemed brighter than ever, stabbing into his retinas.
“Och, God Jesus,” said Jinks from beside him. “It's bloody blinding. Maybe I'll have that blindfold back and go have a nap.”
“No time for naps, we've got more activities,” Lefoque told him with her usual manufactured cheer. “We've an hour for lunch and then it's back to work!”
“What new hells do you plan to perpetrate on us?” Jinks asked. His face was set in a sincere smile, and Lefoque didn't seem to know what to make of this.
“Well... We'll, erm, work on that after lunch. Now though, let's, erm, talk a little about how we felt during-”
The team groaned, and a few of them threw their hands up in protest.
“I think it made us feel a lot of teamwork, right you lot?” Fitz said loudly, his arms folded across his chest.
“Oh sure, loads of it,” agreed Jinks. “Is that all, can we go now?”
“I felt something, not sure it was teamwork,” said Sid. “Seemed more like idiocy, but you're the expert here, Ms. Lefoque. I reckon it must've been teamwork, like the coach said.”
“There's a fine line between idiocy and teamwork.” Fitz clapped his hands. “Right, then. Seems like we've had enough discussion. Lunch?”
Lefoque had the same confused look she'd had yesterday when he'd overridden her at the end of the afternoon activity. “Oh, well, I suppose-”
“Lunch!” cried Declan, pumping his fist in the air. The team gave a small cheer and followed him down the hill to the retreat.
Fitz brought up the rear with Molly and Zara in front of him. He tried not to stare at Molly's derrière in her usual tight, black trousers as he listened to the two of them chuckling together.
“A fine line between idiocy and teamwork,” Zara was saying. “Honestly.”
“Glad you liked that,” he said, and Zara shot him a grin over her shoulder. He smiled back. It was nice to have someone on the team look at him with a smile instead of a scowl. Now he thought about it, until this retreat, he hadn't seen Zara smile in weeks. No one on the team had smiled at him on the pitch, for that matter.
He thought back to his time playing for the Magpies. Yes, he'd definitely had some laughs during training, with his teammates and with their coach. Maybe he'd been too hard on the Prides, but they could have worked harder as well. He dismissed these thoughts; he'd have to consider them later. For now, he wanted a large glass of water and something greasy for lunch.
There was no escaping during lunch after all. Ms. Lefoque appeared to have realized that her control and authority over the team was slim at best, and stayed in the dining room with them as they ate to prevent wholesale mutiny.
“I feel like I'm at school again. No chance of Apparating to Hogsmeade on the sly,” Zara said. She had sat with Molly at lunch, alongside Jinks and Sid. Molly was enjoying the tentative rapport, and was rather glad that Fitz had stayed away. He seemed to be taking one for the team and was seated across from Lefoque, chatting with her about who knew what. Molly had a feeling Sid and Zara wouldn't be talking so openly if their coach was sitting with them.
“Obviously you weren't enough of a troublemaker at school,” Molly told her. “I know of at least five ways to get to Hogsmeade without being seen.”
Sid gave her a look of surprise. “You weren't a troublemaker, though.”
“She was Head Girl, of course she wasn't,” said Jinks.
“True,” Molly agreed. “I was just related to so many of them that I got very good at catching them.”
Zara laughed. “You learned to think like a troublemaker without being one, is that it?”
Molly smiled. “I might have done.”
“Well then,” said Sid around a mouthful of roasted potatoes, “Think of a way to get us out of here before whatever that Lefool woman is doing this afternoon.”
“One by one to the bathroom and Disapparate from there?” suggested Zara.
The others seemed to like this idea, but Molly shook her head. “Only gets a few of us away before she notices. If you want everyone out of activities, you need a distraction.”
“I could start a fire,” offered Jinks.
He probably would do just that, Molly thought wryly. “That probably won't be necessary. Maybe as a last resort.”
“Someone could suddenly become violently ill,” Sid suggested. “Personally, I'd like it to be old Lefool there...”
Zara perked up at that plan. Molly had sudden visions of Lefoque being poisoned by the Chasers. She wondered if any of them had any Weasley's Wizard Wheezes products on hand. Her uncle made any number of products that could make someone sick at the drop of a hat.
Fitz rounded them all up before anyone could start any trouble, though, and they trooped reluctantly into the drawing room for the afternoon activity.
A long table with benches on either side was set up in the center of the room, and down the middle of the table were several piles of Knuts. Molly's first thought was of the team's beloved poker games. She was starting to miss having the lot of them around her house for the games.
Apparently she wasn't the only one thinking of poker. Sid took one look at the piles of Knuts and exclaimed, “Oh, bloody marvelous! Are we gambling?”
Fitz, leaning against the wall behind Lefoque, let out a low chuckle that warmed Molly to her toes. His white button-up shirt stretched across his shoulders, showing the muscles she'd felt earlier during the blindfolded hike. She tried to ignore this and listened to Lefoque's explanation of the game, which she assured them was not gambling but a game of strategy. Sid didn't look deterred and sat down opposite Beathan at one end of the table. Molly sat beside him, with Jinks across from her. Strategy games had always come easily to her, and this one was no exception.
After playing ten matches against Jinks, Beathan, and Duff, Molly was undefeated. Beside her, Sid had also soundly beaten all his partners. The game started out easily enough, but by a few rounds in it grew more and more complex and required a great deal of planning to win. Molly was thinking ten moves ahead, rather like playing chess with her uncle Ron.
She won her next match against Deimos, and looked down at the rest of the table. Zara had just beaten Jinks, who was taking it about as well as ever.
“I haven't bloody won once,” he was whinging, slumping back into his chair. “This game is stupid. I'm not learning a thing. Can't we play something else?”
“Like what? Checkers? Or would you prefer jacks or marbles?” Zara taunted him with a grin.
“Go soak your head,” he told her. “And play Molly next, she's undefeated too.”
Zara glanced down at her, and Molly gave her a little wave. Zara smiled.
“Remember, this activity is meant to build teamwork by showing that planning ahead can help you win,” Lefoque called out. “And it's fun as well!”
“Maybe for her,” muttered Beathan, who had only managed to win against Jinks so far.
“You know what this game needs?” said Declan, turning to Duff. “Whisky.”
Duff seemed to like this idea. “Yeah. Instead of taking a couple of Knuts when you guess heads or tails, you do a shot. Nice.”
“No no no,” Lefoque cried, looking alarmed. “It isn't a drinking game!”
“Everything can be a drinking game if you try hard enough,” remarked Fitz. He was still leaning against the wall, arms crossed over his chest and looking amused.
“We certainly know that from experience, don't we, Fitzie?” Mariah called out to him, her lips curving in a calculated smile. She added a wink as well, managing to look completely inappropriate. Molly had a sudden urge to slap her.
Fitz ignored his ex-wife completely. Lefoque's eyes were a little wide, and she tried to hurry them back to the game, fluttering over to Deimos and Beathan.
Molly leaned back in her chair and reached across Duff to tap Mariah on the shoulder. “I thought you had decided to put your career ahead of messing about your ex-husband?” she murmured as quietly as she could.
Mariah shot her a glare. “Oh, you'd like that, wouldn't you?” she snapped, and then scooted her chair down a few inches away.
“Mariah. Mariah.” Molly gave her an impatient stare, but Mariah wouldn't look at her again. She glanced up and caught Fitz's eye, but he only pressed his lips together and gave a tiny shrug.
They managed to stay on task for the rest of the afternoon, dividing into teams to play a few rounds as well. Molly joined up with Zara and Sid, and despite having the utterly useless Jinks and Bram on their side, they managed to win the match. Jinks, it was clear, was not trying, but their opponents had almost as little interest in the game: Beathan had pulled out her wand and was charming her nails in an argyle pattern, and Duff and Declan were miming doing shots with each coin toss.
“You'd give yourself alcohol poisoning if you drank that many shots,” Molly told them between rounds.
“Nah,” Declan assured her. “I know a charm for that.”
She shook her head at him in mock dismay, and he grinned.
Finally Lefoque let them go for the day, though it was apparent she was reluctant to leave them to their free time. Molly was rather enjoying being part of the incorrigible group for once. It was a lot more fun than trying to keep them in check. She could see why her cousins had always loved to cause trouble at school. Hell, a few of them still hadn't outgrown the urge to be a troublemaker.
The team didn't bother to stay for whatever Lefoque had planned for dinner and instead headed straight to the pub, much to Lefoque's obvious chagrin. Fitz led the way, so she didn't bother to stop them, only standing there forlornly as they all left, the bag of coins dangling from her fingertips.
The pub had the usual smattering of locals, and there were some smiles as the Prides arrived. Molly hoped the town was getting to like them, since they were probably going to spend every night this week sitting in the pub until closing time. The barkeep grinned at them and started drawing pints as the team bellied up to the bar.
Declan and Duff, as promised, began turning the team building activity into a drinking game. The rest of the team circled round to watch. Mariah was still studiously avoiding Molly, who decided she didn't want to see the Beaters actually getting alcohol poisoning, charm notwithstanding, and took her pint down to the other end of the bar where Jinks and Fitz were sitting. Molly plopped into the empty seat between them.
“You're ruining my buffer space,” Fitz noted. He didn't look concerned by this though, working his way steadily through a plate of chips and a pint.
Molly snagged a chip off his plate, dipping it in ketchup before she popped it in her mouth. “What d'you need a buffer for? Don't want to listen to Jinks slurping his shots?”
“Don't want to smell him, more like.” Fitz winked at her.
“Showering is bad luck,” exclaimed Jinks from Molly's other side. “I've decided I'm not going to do it any more.”
Molly wrinkled her nose at him. “You're disgusting.”
“I don't have to take this abuse.” Jinks got up, shot glass in hand. “I'm going to go see if Duff is still conscious.”
“Good, go. And then take a shower,” she called after him.
“I think he's hoping if he smells bad enough, Lefoque won't make him participate,” observed Fitz.
“Works for me,” Molly agreed. “It makes me want him to not participate, that's for sure.”
They drank in silence for a while, watching Duff and Declan getting Deimos Flint to join their game. The rest of the team wasn't paying their coach and captain any attention. Molly turned in her seat to look round the pub. A few seats down from Fitz, an old man in plaid robes and a black cap was nursing a large pint of dark beer, and at the table across from them, two middle-aged witches sat cackling over their knitting and a bottle of elderberry wine. Molly smiled at them; it gave the place a lovely rural sort of atmosphere that she enjoyed.
The bartender bustled past them to the old man in the plaid robes and refilled his pint, then told him gruffly, “I hope ye choke on it.”
“Away wi' ye, ye son of a harpy,” retorted the man in plaid.
Molly snorted, and Fitz let out a chuckle. The bartender came over to them, sliding a shot of firewhisky in front of Fitz.
“Who's that?” he asked curiously.
“He's a damned bastard who slept with my wife, God rest her,” the bartender informed him. “Bloody cuckolding old-"
“She were my wife first, God rest her,” piped up the plaid robes. “You stole her from me.”
“Pah.” The bartender spit on the floor. “To hell wi' ye.”
“To hell wi' you, too.”
Molly and Fitz exchanged a glance. The bartender tapped a finger against the side of his nose.
“The old bastard won't go away. He sits here every night, drinking up all my whisky.”
“And he won't even pay his tab, isn't that right, Donald?” One of the witches who'd been knitting leaned against the bartop. Her hair was a blend of steel-grey and orangey-red, her face covered in freckles, skin worn down by too much time spent outdoors.
Donald the barkeep gave her a dark glare. “One day I'll poison him. You wait and see.”
“Back to work. You will not. He's your cousin, you know.”
Molly snorted her drink out her nose. While she was mopping up the mess from her face (with Fitz grinning at her), Donald set a fresh bottle of wine in front of the red-haired witch and said gruffly, “Second cousin.”
The witch set her knitting on the bartop and held out a weathered hand to Fitz. “I'm Gormla MacFusty.”
“Riordan Fitzroy,” Fitz said, shaking her hand.
Molly reached over his shoulder to shake hands as well. “Molly Weasley.”
“He's all talk, that one,” she said, nodding to Donald. “The two of them have been at it for years. Pay them no mind at all.”
“How long has this been going on?” Fitz asked, waving his shot of whisky at the two old men. “The drinking and not paying the tab, arch-enemies thing.”
Gormla MacFusty rolled her eyes. “Going on forty years now.”
Molly had to hide her face behind Fitz's back to cover her laughter. Fitz was grinning and shaking his head.
“No one can hate you like your family can hate you,” Gormla told them. She was eyeing them speculatively. “Heard you lot are out at that bloody corporate retreat place. Doing trust falls and other nonsense, are ye?”
“No trust falls yet, but there's always tomorrow,” Fitz assured her.
“Don't seem the usual types she gets over at that place.” Gormla sat on the empty barstool beside Fitz, her serviceable black robes hiking up over her hobnailed boots, revealing knitted woolen socks in a tartan pattern.
“That's what Donald told us yesterday,” Molly put in, managing to get her giggles under control.
“For one thing, ye're here in the pub with the locals, they don't normally do that. And ye're talking to us. Well, that lot is probably beyond talking at this point,” she added, nodding toward the rest of the team.
Molly looked over her shoulder in time to see Deimos fall heavily off his chair, then struggle back to his feet to the cheers of the team.
“I'm okay,” he was saying. “I can keep drinking.”
Molly turned back. “They're still upright. Mostly.”
“Being in the Outer Hebrides really loosens you up,” Fitz said, giving her a sidelong glance.
“I'm off duty,” she told him cheerfully. “I'm taking in the local colour. Maybe I'll go look for a dragon or two.”
“Oh, you don't want to be doin' that,” said Gormla seriously. “The buggers'll have you for lunch.”
Molly suddenly remembered she was one of the responsible parties present and hurried to reassure her. “I wouldn't really. I know better, honestly. My uncle studies dragons in Romania. I like to see them, but only with a dragonologist present for safety, and never in the wild.”
Fitz chuckled and remarked, “There's the Molly I'm used to,” but Gormla appeared impressed.
“Your uncle, eh? Well, I think I can show you a few. We've got a few of them up over the mountain in pens, sick ones and nesting mothers, and an old drake who was injured in a dominance battle and lost half his right wing. Can't fly any longer. You can come along,” she added to Fitz. “And I reckon the rest of them can come, too.”
“We'll sober them up first,” he promised.
Gormla was looking over at the team with a raised eyebrow. A few of them had gone back to the retreat to sleep, but everyone remaining was standing around Deimos, almost falling over with laughter. He was on the floor, rolling about like an overturned turtle and laughing his head off.
“Why me?” Fitz muttered.
Molly gave him a little push. “Better go check on him.”
Donald the barkeep was already there, and between the two of them they decided Deimos just needed to sleep it off. He was too drunk to walk or Apparate, and no one else was sober enough to take him Side-Along. Donald went to fetch the wheelbarrow he kept for these sorts of situations, and the prospect of bringing Deimos Flint home in a wheelbarrow was enough to get the rest of the team to cart him home. Duff and Declan, who were the largest and most muscular after Deimos, volunteered to do the heavy lifting. Since the drinking game had been their idea in the first place, Molly felt this was only fair.
“Are they always like this?” Gormla murmured, watching the Beaters hauling Deimos outside, dragging him by the legs.
“Not always...” Molly hedged. “I think they've decided they're on holiday and can behave how they like.”
“They remind me of my cousin Findlay.”
“They remind me of my cousin James.”
Once the Prides were on their way, Fitz returned to the bar and took his seat again.
“Bloody hell,” he groaned, picking up his unfinished drink. “That man weighs as much as a troll.”
Gormla laughed. “I'll see you lot later, all right?” And with a wave she returned to her friend, her knitting and wine in hand.
Molly wasn't laughing, though. Fitz looked more serious now than he had earlier. She had a fairly good guess why. He was sitting stiffly, his injured arm held at his side instead of leaning against the bartop. “You helped lift him, didn't you? Even with your bad shoulder?”
“That lot was so drunk they could hardly stand themselves upright, much less anyone else. And the barman's too old,” he added in a whisper.
She wanted to give him a good whack for being stupid, but she didn't want to hurt him even worse. Up close, she could see the lines of pain deepen in his face. “Drink your whisky, you idiot. Hopefully it'll dull the pain a bit. Did you bring any potions with you?”
“Healers gave me a potions regimen,” he answered shortly. “I've been taking them as directed.”
“Will you be all right with just those?” she asked warily.
He gave a one-shouldered shrug on his good side. “I'll probably have to get in to see a Healer when we get home.”
She didn't like the sound of that, and from his tone, neither did he. “Don't do anything else to hurt yourself, all right?”
“Don't boss me around.” He finished off his drink and waved to the bartender for another.
“I'm only looking out for you. Stop being an arsehole about it.”
Fitz's head snapped around. “I'm not-” he began hotly, but then he stopped. “I am being an arse, aren't I? I don't mean to.”
“I can always tell when you've been drinking, because you actually apologize to me,” Molly said with a fake sigh.
“You're the only one I apologize to,” he told her, and Molly felt her cheeks go red.
They were silent then while Donald refilled Fitz's whisky. After he'd walked off again, Molly slid off her barstool.
“It's getting late.”
“I'll walk you home,” he offered, moving to stand up, but she shook her head.
“Stay and finish your drink. I'll Apparate. I'm sober, really.”
“Are you? Stand on one leg.”
Molly balanced on one leg and then the other, and Fitz seemed to accept that she was steady enough.
“All right. Just checking. Have to be responsible for all you drunkards, after all, I'm the coach.” He picked up his glass and drank half the contents in one gulp.
“Right, because you're the head of all the drunkards.”
“Nah. You're the head drunkard. I'm Coach Drunkard.”
Molly smiled at him. He was trying to be light-hearted, but she could still see pain on his face. Her face grew serious, and she asked quietly, “Are you sure you're all right?”
He nodded. “I'll live. Good night, Molly.”
The cold night air sobered her even more when she left the warmth of the pub. Blowing out a long breath, she pictured the retreat's distinctive ornamental shrubberies and turned over her shoulder, Disapparating with a crack.
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