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The Stars Were Dim by RonsGirlFriday

Format: Short story
Chapters: 4
Word Count: 9,870
Status: WIP

Rating: 15+
Warnings: Contains profanity, Mild violence, Substance abuse

Genres: Drama, General, Angst
Characters: Harry, Ginny, Luna, Albus, James (II), Lily (II), OC, OtherCanon
Pairings:

First Published: 05/24/2009
Last Chapter: 10/06/2009
Last Updated: 10/06/2009

Summary:

Spectacular banner by niika @ TDA! || Golden Snitches Winner 2010: Best Angst


James was a professional Quidditch sensation. A bright and shining star. An unstoppable force. Until a well-aimed Bludger shattered his shoulder -- and his dreams.

That was the year the stars went dim for James Potter.


[Written for long_live_luna_bellatrix's Contradicting Challenge.]
 



Chapter 1: Supernova
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A/N: This story is written in response to long_live_luna_bellatrix's Contradicting Challenge, in which I was given a title, main character, side character, quote, and object that don't necessarily fit together in any ordinary way.  The task was to create a story using all of those elements.

The story title was assigned to me (the chapter titles are my own).  My main character is James Potter II; my side character is Luna Lovegood; my object is a dictionary; and my quote is, "I think a year should have 360 days in it, not 365."  You'll find the quote in this chapter, but some of the remaining elements may not appear until the last chapter (the story will likely be about five chapters long).

I hope you enjoy!  Please take the time to leave a review and tell me what you think!





“Mr. Potter! Can I have your autograph?”

James stopped at the entrance to the team locker rooms and turned to find the source of the timid voice that had just called out to him. He smiled and knelt down in front of the small boy who was holding out a toy Snitch in one nervous hand.

“Of course! And you can call me James. What’s your name?” As he accepted the Snitch from the boy, he flashed a friendly smile towards the woman a few meters away, who appeared to be the boy’s mother. The middle-aged witch blushed slightly and nodded in return.

“David Pitchess,” said the boy.

“Hello, David. And how old are you?” James signed his name on the toy Snitch.

“Eight years old.”

“What’s your favorite part of Quidditch?”

“The Seeker, of course! You’re my very favorite, James. You’re the best Seeker ever!” David’s round face was glowing.

James laughed as he handed David the autographed Snitch. “Well, thanks for that! Look, I’ve got to go get ready for the match now, okay? Pleased to have met you.” He shook David’s small hand and stood up.

“James?” asked David as James turned towards the locker rooms.

“Yeah, David.”

“Do you think I could play for Puddlemere someday?”

“I think you can do anything if you practice hard enough.” James smiled again and ducked into the locker rooms.

James grinned to himself as he changed into his Quidditch robes. This was one of the best parts of professional Quidditch. The other best part: a stadium packed to capacity with screaming fans.




“Now, let’s hear it for your home team…Puddlemere United!”

James’ heart was racing. His blood was pounding in his ears. He smiled an exhilarated smile. After five years, this part still made him giddy. It was childish, really. But it got him pumped up for every match, so he didn’t care.

“Baxter! Huffmire! Smith! Baddock! Davies! Kirke! And…”

James kicked off and soared out onto the pitch, welcoming the wild cheers and thunderous applause that greeted him there.

“Potter!!”

He took a few warm-up laps around the pitch with his team, waving to his fans as he zipped by.

The stadium grew quiet as James and his teammates touched down and lined up across from the Chudley Cannons. Eleanor Baxter, Puddlemere’s Captain, shook hands with the Cannons’ Captain, Dean McMurtry.

James kicked off the moment he heard the referee’s whistle. He rose about twenty meters higher than the rest of the players and started scanning the stadium methodically, his dark brown eyes focused on everything and nothing. He had become quite good at blocking out everything around him and concentrating completely on his task, while at the same time remaining hyper-aware of his surroundings. It was a skill that was perhaps more important in a Seeker than good eyesight and speed combined.

“It’s Puddlemere with the Quaffle! Huffmire has the Quaffle, and Puddlemere immediately assumes the Hawkshead Attacking Formation! Nice evasion by Huffmire there, excellent assist by Baxter, Huffmire breaks through Cannon Chaser Banville’s defense…Huffmire scores!!”

James cheered along with the crowd, still circling the pitch and keeping a watchful eye.




The match was a heated one. Puddlemere and the Cannons were neck and neck in the League rankings, and the League Cup might rest entirely on the outcome of this match. For over forty minutes, neither team led the other by more than twenty points. Both teams were highly skilled offensively, and though turnovers were frequent, in that short span of time they had managed to run the score up to 150 points Puddlemere, 130 points Cannons.

Seconds after Baxter brought Puddlemere’s score to 160 points, James saw the Snitch glittering behind the Cannon’s goal posts. Welles, the Cannons’ Seeker, hadn’t seen it yet, since he was busy watching the Cannons soar down the pitch in the other direction.

James accelerated, following the Snitch as it flitted to the bottom of the goal posts. It hovered ten meters above the ground, taunting him, as he reached out his right arm, about to close in.

Crunch.

A Bludger, soaring under his outstretched arm, hit him square on the right side of his ribcage. He heard a sickening crack and felt an excruciating pain shoot up and down his torso.

He swore loudly and squeezed his eyes shut for half a second before forcing them open again. He wasn’t even sure whether the Snitch was still there, but with his arm still outstretched, he struggled to regain his course.

Less than two seconds after the first Bludger broadsided him in the ribs, a second force like a battering ram hit his right shoulder at an awful angle.

For a wild moment, James thought the second Bludger had taken his arm off completely. It felt like there was absolutely nothing attached to his shoulder. Except for pain. Searing, blinding, unfathomable pain.

His vision went blurry, and he felt himself slumping forward on his broom just as everything went dark.




“Is he awake? I think he just moved.”

James woke, with a splitting headache, to the sound of voices whispering over him. The soft murmurs assaulted his ears, and he felt himself grimacing as he kept his eyes squeezed shut, trying to get back to the quiet, comfortable, dark place he had just come from.

“He even makes weird faces when he’s unconscious.”

“Quiet, Lily!”

“What…what day is it?” he groaned. He didn’t open his eyes – it felt like a very difficult thing to do.

“James!”

“It’s…it’s February twenty-ninth, James.” He recognized his dad’s voice.

“No, it isn’t. It’s March first.” That voice belonged to his mum.

“Really?” asked Harry.

“Yes, leap year was last year.”

“Oh, I can never keep it straight. I think a year should have 360 days in it, not 365. That way every month can have thirty days, and we don’t have to mess with this rubbish.”

James groaned again. He wished they’d shut up. His head was pounding. He became aware of his mother’s small hands wrapped around one of his, and he gave them a gentle squeeze. It was then that he realized the hand she was holding was his right hand, and that assured him that his right arm was, in fact, still attached to his body.

Slowly, James opened his eyes. He was in a great deal of pain, but his mother’s, father’s, and sister’s anxious faces were a welcome sight. From his surroundings, he gathered that he was in a room at St. Mungo’s. His otherwise bare torso was wrapped in an enormous white bandage, and his right arm was in a complicated sling that forced him to keep it more or less stationary and pinned to his side.

“Did you say – ow!” He winced as he tried to sit up in his bed. Pain seared through his torso and shoulder. He lay back down, defeated. “Did you say it’s February twenty-ninth?”

“March first, dearest,” corrected Ginny.

“Whatever, Mum. So I’ve been out for…for three days?”

“They had to sedate you quite a bit,” replied Harry. “You’d have been in too much pain otherwise.”

“Well, it still hurts,” grumbled James. “Feels like my sodding arm is going to fall off!”

“Language, James!”

“Sorry, Mum. Feels like my…like my lovely, tap-dancing arm is about to fall off.”

Suddenly, a thought occurred to him, and panic overtook him.

“Holy bleeding hell!” Ignoring the screaming pain in his side, he forced himself upright with his left arm. “What am I going to do about Quidditch?!” He had never suffered an injury like this before. His mind raced as he tried to figure out how many matches he would have to miss.

He looked from Harry’s face, to Ginny’s, to Lily’s, and back to Harry’s. Ginny bit her lip and looked at him apologetically. Lily cast her eyes down towards the floor. Harry, however, gazed steadily at James.

“Ginny,” he said, “do you think you and Lily can give us a minute?”

Ginny planted a kiss on James’ forehead and moved towards the doorway with Lily. Pausing at the threshold, she turned around and mouthed something that looked like, I’m sorry. Then, with a sympathetic look, she left. This behavior only heightened James’ anxiety, and he tried to slow his uneven breathing as he wondered exactly how badly he had been hurt.

“Dad…?” James looked plaintively at his father.

Harry regarded his son evenly for a moment. Finally, he spoke.

“The good news is you’re going to have normal use of your arm.”

James wasn’t sure whether his mind was playing tricks on him, or whether his dad had placed careful emphasis on the word “normal.”

“What about brilliant-Quidditch-playing use of my arm?” James laughed nervously.

“Well, you see, the thing about that is – ”

“Dad,” interrupted James, “I can still play Quidditch, can’t I??”

Harry raised his eyebrows slightly. “Just listen to me, James. They said it won’t be completely out of the question for you to play Quidditch. That is, you’ll be capable of doing it, and nobody’s going to tell you not to. The thing is…”

James felt a horrible constriction in his chest. He wished his dad would just spit it out already.

“…the thing is, you’re never going to regain a full range of motion in your shoulder, so while you can play Quidditch if you want…honestly, you won’t be able to play like you used to.”

His dad may as well have been speaking Gobbledegook for all the sense it made to James. Not play Quidditch like he used to? James Sirius Potter, the star Seeker, not play as well as he always had?

He refused to connect the dots. He resisted the implication behind Harry’s words.

“I can catch the Snitch with my left hand, Dad, you know that! That’s why you taught me both ways, in case something like this happened, right?”

“Not exactly like this, James. Do you really think you can go your entire career as a lefty?”

James knew he couldn’t. Or, at least, he could, but it would never be the same. He would never be as good as he was before. His record would plummet. Puddlemere would let him go. The next great Seeker would step in, and James would be tossed aside like yesterday’s newspaper. David Pitchess was probably the last person who would ever ask for his autograph. And David’s autographed Snitch would be worth rubbish, just like James Potter.

Heartbroken and ashamed, he covered his face with his left hand to hide the tears brimming in his eyes. James Potter never cried. He was embarrassed to break down like this in front of his father. In an effort to keep the tears at bay, he held his breath, but that only seemed to force more tears to the surface. One traitorous droplet escaped and rolled down his cheek.

“I’m sorry,” he muttered, wiping his nose.

“For what?” Harry looked bewildered.

“For…for the crying…and the Quidditch.”

Harry laughed in astonishment, but a concerned look creased his brow as he locked eyes with James.

“Son…I really couldn’t care less about either.”

Chapter 2: Hubble's Law
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He didn’t know why he still kept these newspaper clippings around.

For days like this, he supposed. For times when it seemed like an excellent idea to wallow in his own misery.

It was, after all, the most miserable collection of newspaper clippings imaginable. Most people saved articles about their achievements, or major national and world events, or humorous general interest pieces. Recipes, advice columns, anything constructive.

James’ collection told the story of his descent into nothingness.


It started with the first articles, dated February 27, 2029 – nearly a year ago.

Bright Young Quidditch Star Falls
Puddlemere Seeker Potter hospitalized for major injuries


Sensational Seeker Shatters Shoulder
Potter severely injured; Puddlemere loses to Cannons



The next one, dated May 15, 2029, represented a more hopeful time.

Potter Promises He Will Play
Injured Puddlemere Seeker vows to return next season



That was when he had still felt invincible. Despite the crushing disappointment of his injury, he hadn’t been ready to let go. It just wasn’t in him to give up without a fight. It wasn’t in him to give up at all. Whether it was tenacity or stubbornness or simply egotism, when James Potter wanted something, he was like a dog with a bone – a trait that had earned him both praise and criticism in abundance.

It was hard to remember exactly what had fueled him onward – whether it was the love of the sport and the way the wind rushed through his hair, or the fact that it was the only way of life he knew, or just the love of fame itself – he could barely remember, now, in the pathetic state of existence he called his life, what had pushed him to keep going. If he were being honest with himself, it was a probably a combination of all those things. Or maybe it was simply the fear of being a nobody. For now he could barely recall any of those positive motivations, leading him to believe they might never have existed at all. Now there were only fear and anxiety and shame.

Whatever it had been, he remembered that some unattainable delusion had made the months of therapy bearable. Something had urged him on through the agonizing days and nights when he felt as though the tendons in his shoulder were being ripped open again. Something had allowed him to see past the weakness and hope for newfound strength, even as a small voice in his head had reminded him that he would always be weaker than before. And even as his progress had grown more noticeable, every night he had still prayed that he would wake up and find out that it had all been a horrible dream – that he had really caught the Snitch, that Puddlemere had won, that the Cannons had dropped in the League standings, and that chronic pain had not become a persistent fact of life for him.

It occurred to him that his persistence had, in fact, been nothing more than willful ignorance. He had been blind to what he simply didn’t want to see – that he would never again be the best. In some temporary bout of insanity, he had believed that all of the work, all of the therapy, all of the practice would be good enough…but, of course, it wasn’t.


And that was why the articles from the previous July told the story of an incomplete success:

Puddlemere Seeker to Play Reserve
Potter’s performance not up to par; accepts reserve position


Seeker Switcheroo
Former reserve Hoskins takes Potter’s place; Potter to play reserve



James ran one hand restlessly through his black hair as he skimmed the headlines. Accepting Puddlemere’s offer of a reserve spot had been one of the most difficult decisions he had ever made. He hadn’t played reserves since his first year out of Hogwarts, and over the past five years he had become one of the most popular Seekers in the entire British and Irish League. Returning to the reserves had seemed shameful somehow. It was a definite step down in status, and he wasn’t even guaranteed playing time. Whenever a player moved from the main team to the reserves, it was usually just a way of fading out more slowly. Death by mediocrity.

To James’ credit, he hadn’t glanced at any of these clippings over the past three months. In the beginning, he had spent hours poring over them, as if re-reading the descriptions of his injuries could make him immune to the pain.

The physical pain was now long gone – as long as he didn’t try to lift his arm completely above his head – but the embarrassment was a wound that had been continually broken open, so that now he wondered whether he had any chance of ever healing completely.

The only reason he was looking at these stupid things, was that he now had a new article to add to the collection. In big, bold lettering, smack in the middle of the page, it confirmed the fear that had haunted James ever since he had woken up in St. Mungo’s: that the last remnants of his former glory had been snuffed out completely.

James stared numbly at the Quidditch section of that day’s Daily Prophet, dated January 13, 2030.


Is Potter Finished?
Puddlemere reserve Seeker misses Snitch, raises eyebrows


In yesterday’s match between Puddlemere United and the Tutshill Tornados, Puddlemere reserve Seeker James Potter seemed unable to keep up with Tornados Seeker Thomas Boyd. Boyd caught the Snitch, securing a Tornados victory with a final score of 370 to 250.

Potter, who turns 25 this month, was injured last February when two Bludgers shattered his shoulder blade and several ribs and damaged several ligaments in his shoulder. After several months of therapy he was placed on Puddlemere’s reserve team.

This is the first time this season that Potter has played in a League match, filling in for regular Seeker Jamie Hoskins. Hoskins suffered a minor injury last week and is expected to play in Puddlemere’s upcoming match against Pride of Portree.

Critics are now questioning whether Potter’s Quidditch career has come to an end. Puddlemere manager Michael Slattery could not be reached for comment.



James had always thought the Prophet put a bit more commentary than was appropriate into its news articles, but even he had to admit that the reporter hadn’t been exaggerating about James’ inability to keep up with Boyd. Boyd was by no means the best Seeker in the League, but he was fast and he maneuvered well. And, while Puddlemere had tried to keep the physical aftereffects of James’ injury under wraps, word had somehow gotten around the League that James just wasn’t as fast or flexible as he used to be. No doubt Boyd had been encouraged by this fact, since he had flown better in this match than he normally did.

This time last year, James could have beaten Boyd with one arm tied behind his back. But his body just didn’t work the same anymore. He favored his right side, which affected the very manner in which he flew, especially his turns and maneuvers. If he tried to grab the Snitch right-handed, he was limited by the range of movement in his right arm. And, as his father had gently pointed out, he couldn’t make it solely as a lefty – the Snitch wasn’t always in prime location relative to his body for a left-handed grab.

But it hadn’t even come down to which hand he used to grab for the Snitch – because, as the Snitch had led James and Boyd on a winding chase across the pitch and around Puddlemere’s goal posts, James had fallen behind. He had trailed Boyd by mere seconds, but in a race for the Snitch, half a second was the difference between victory and failure.

He hadn’t been able to look his teammates in the eye after the match. A few of them had been supportive over the past year, but he knew the rest of them questioned whether he even deserved to play on the reserve team. Baxter hadn’t said a word to him before the match began. She had been opposed all along to Slattery’s decision to keep James. James had overheard them arguing the past summer when Slattery made the offer.

He should have known then that it was all over. How could he have expected to make a full comeback in anybody’s eyes, when his own captain didn’t want him on the team? He’d always gotten on so well with Baxter – and everyone on the team, for that matter. But it was a professional Quidditch team, not a social club. Winning was the only thing that was important.

As James read through the article for the fifth time, his parents’ barn owl Artemis soared through the open window in his kitchen and dropped a letter in front of him. James stared warily at the letter before opening it.


James,

We heard about the match. I’m guessing you want to be alone for now, but you know if you need us you can always write or come over. Don’t worry – everything will work out.

Dad



“ ‘Everything will work out’?” repeated James aloud. “What does that even mean?” His career was over, and his parents wanted him to think he would wake up the next morning and everything would be right again?

“Get lost, Arty,” he said to the owl. “I don’t have anything to send back with you.”

Artemis clicked his beak critically and flew out the window. James tossed the note onto the table and bent his head over the Daily Prophet once more.

The article wasn’t as bad as it could have been – but it was only Day One. No doubt the Quidditch commentators were preparing to launch their various attacks in the days to come. Not to mention what the weekly and monthly Quidditch newsletters would hold. And the Prophet’s Quidditch Editor, Derek Byerly, was sure to cook up a scathing editorial within the next twenty-four hours. Byerly was notoriously harsh, and he apparently treated his staff the same way he treated Quidditch players who made too many errors, because James’ mum still talked about how much of a prat he was, even though she had quit working for the Prophet nearly five years ago.

The bad press was to be expected, though, especially given how badly things had gone in the end. Even during the highlights of the past year, when it had looked like James might actually have a chance at success again, the news coverage had been largely pessimistic. Hope and determination didn’t sell newspapers – disappointment and broken spirits did. Before his injury, the press hadn’t bothered James, but that was because he rarely gave them a chance to rip him apart. He won matches; he was the golden boy; he was the darling of the Quidditch page. But that had all gone to hell over the past year.

James stared at the page until the words started to blur together, trying with all his might not to care. But the more he tried to detach himself, the heavier the weight on his chest became. Sighing, he placed his head in his hands and wished he could disappear off the face of the earth. Considering this most recent bit of press, he was starting to think it would have been better if he had just been forgotten entirely.

Chapter 3: Retrograde
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He had arrived late for the specific purpose of avoiding their accusing glares.

Unfortunately, today was one of those days when practice had run long, and everyone had chosen to hang around for an extra ten minutes. As hard as James tried to keep his head down as he trekked through the locker room, a masochistic impulse had him meeting the eyes of each of his teammates.

They glowered at him as he passed. James was fully aware that he had made it a hundred times worse for himself by not showing up for practice. Because now he was the very worst kind of team member: the guy who can’t play worth a damn but still thinks he can write his own ticket.

Baxter threw him a look that could freeze the sun. Baddock actually slammed his shoulder into James’ (the left one, thankfully) as he passed by, but James kept his head down and didn’t react. Baddock was a big guy with a bad temper, so this behavior could be considered almost friendly in light of the circumstances. With Hoskins, on the other hand, James had to remind himself to keep his cool – for Hoskins had thrown James such an arrogant, satisfied smirk that James was tempted to punch it right off his pretty-boy face.

Several of his fellow reserve players gave him resentful looks or rolled their eyes as he passed by. Burton and Stanley in particular – they would have given anything to play in a League match…and they wouldn’t have botched a play, or ruined Puddlemere’s chances, and they certainly wouldn’t have ditched practice two days later.

He nearly cringed when he caught the eye of Ian Smith. Smith had been the most supportive of James’ teammates over the past few months, but now all he did was shake his head in frustrated disappointment as he slung his bag over his shoulder and left the room.

After what seemed like an eternity, James made it to the manager’s office, where he found Michael Slattery, feet on his desk, perusing a sheet of League statistics. James shut the door behind him and hovered in the middle of the room, waiting for Slattery to acknowledge him.

“So,” said Slattery without looking up, “you were so satisfied with your performance the other day that you felt it unnecessary to come to practice anymore.”

“I quit, Mike.”

“You can’t quit.”

“Watch me.”

Slattery tossed the sheet onto one of the many piles in front of him and placed his hands behind his head. “So you’ve decided not to be a part of this team because your ego’s bruised?”

Not wanting to lose his head, James concentrated very hard on keeping his voice on the same level as Slattery’s calm tenor. “Am I a part of the team? Because the way they were all looking at me, you’d think I wasn’t.”

“Well, they’re a bit ticked off.”

“And I’m not? It may surprise you, but I’m aware that we lost, and I’m aware it was my fault. But the way they were looking at me, you’d think I’d missed the Snitch on purpose. Or killed someone’s firstborn, for God’s sake.”

“I think they’d rather it were the firstborn.”

An uncomfortable silence filled the space between them. Slattery regarded James with a look of concern and shook his head with a sigh.

“You look like hell, James.”

James didn’t answer and avoided Slattery’s eyes.

“Have you slept at all?” James shook his head. “Been eating?” Another shake of the head.

Slattery sighed again. “I understand how you feel, but don’t do this to yourself.”

James’ head snapped up. “You understand how this feels? Mr. I-Led-Puddlemere-to-Nine-League-Championships? When you were my age, people were just beginning to kiss your ass – you weren’t dealing with the death of your career!”

“Kid, sit down before I have to stuff you under a cold shower.”

James dropped into a chair across from Slattery, his head spinning and his chest heaving.

“Now, I’m going to let that attitude slide because I feel for you, I really do. And despite the fact that you’re an idiot sometimes, I guess I like you. But snap out of it, because I am still your manager – or that’s what it says on my door, anyway.” He smirked at his little joke.

James stared straight ahead, eyes unfocused. “Why do you want me to stay on the team?”

“Oh, the idealist in me would say the answer is team spirit, hope, faith, resilience, perseverance, and every other thing I know you’re not feeling right now. But considering the current state of things, I’ll tell you it’s because your contract runs the length of the season and we haven’t got any other reserve Seekers.”

“It’s not like you’re going to need me again. It was only dumb luck that I was needed to fill in anyway.”

“What if we do need you again?”

“Play MacMillan.”

“MacMillan plays Chaser.”

“And he’s got two functioning arms, unlike me.” James scowled. “Besides, Eleanor will throw a fit if you ever try to bring me in again.”

“Eleanor doesn’t make that call.”

James glared at his manager. “So the way it works is, I stay on, I come to practices and get reminded five days a week that I’m worthless, and then at the end of the season you bring some bright new star, fresh from Hogwarts, to take my place in the reserves.”

Slattery didn’t answer, and seemed very focused on a spot on his desk.

“Oh, God, Mike, you’ve already been scouting someone, haven’t you?”

“Sit,” commanded Slattery, as James made to get up from his chair in frustration.

James paused, halfway off his seat, his eyes boring into his manager’s. He considered walking right out the door, purely for the sake of being insolent – but his body, almost against his will, sank back into the chair. He tore his eyes away from Slattery, letting them fall instead on a knot on the front of Slattery’s wooden desk. A peculiar sensation of numbness had overtaken his body, and his brain felt fuzzy as he fought to wrap his mind around everything that had gone utterly wrong with his life.

It wasn’t fair. It wasn’t fair that he was a washed-up nobody this early in the game. It wasn’t fair that nobody seemed to care how this was affecting James – all they cared about was filling the empty seat on his broom before he’d even had a chance to clear out his locker.

James’ breath came out in short, shallow bursts as he stared at the desk. He hated Michael Slattery, and he hated Puddlemere. He hated whoever had invented Quidditch. He hated whoever was responsible for giving him a gift and then taking it back.

“What do you want me to do, James? You think I like being in this position? Besides, you’re the one who just walked in here and tried to quit.”

James ignored Slattery, his eyes now scanning the posters of the old Puddlemere teams that lined the walls. His gaze lingered over each of the old Seekers, who waved back heartily and jostled their teammates in a friendly manner as they assumed their respective spots for the team photos. Derrick Branstone – he had had a successful few years as a professional Seeker before waking up one day and realizing his true calling as a magizoologist. At least he’d actually wanted to quit his career early. Miles Pemberley – he’d had a decent run with Puddlemere, although those were the years when Puddlemere had been absolute rubbish. He’d only had a forty percent record catching the Snitch, but they’d kept him because he’d been they best they could get at the time. David Prewett – he had spent twelve years with Puddlemere before leaving to start a family and work for the Ministry. His legend hadn’t been dragged through the mud – he was keeping it on a shelf somewhere, tarnish-free, to share with his grandchildren someday.

Good for them. It was just sodding excellent for them.

His eyes fell on the team poster from six years earlier, when he’d first been brought up from the reserves. The photograph version of James beamed with satisfaction at finding himself in the middle of such a talented group of Quidditch players. His older teammates punched him in the arm affectionately, mouthing words that James could still hear clearly in his mind. “Kid,” they’d called him. “Baby-Face James.” The little brother they’d never had.

Yeah, you’re really bleeding cool, kid, he thought bitterly as he eyed his former self. Guess where you’ll be in a few years.

At last, he wrenched his eyes away from the poster and turned to face Slattery. He realized that Slattery had been watching him quietly for the past few moments.

“So who is it, Mike? Who’s the next boy wonder from Hogwarts?” Or maybe it’s a girl, he added to himself. Albus would never let me live that one down.

“I can honestly tell you we’re not looking at anyone specifically. We’ve had to go and scout a few Chasers anyway, and we noticed there’s some good Seeking talent about to come out of there. Who knows – we might just try to arrange a trade.” He said this as if it were somehow less insulting than taking on a rookie.

“I hate you, Mike.”

“I know.”

“And then what do I do? Because I’m willing to bet you’re not about to give up your job. So what do I do after you’ve ripped my name off my robes and given them to someone else?”

“Stop being melodramatic. There are a lot of things you can do. You don’t have to give up your involvement in Quidditch altogether. You could even go coach – ”

“Don’t. For the love of everything magical, don’t tell me I can go coach kiddie Quidditch.”

“It’s just a suggestion, James. It’s nice to be involved in the community, you know?”

James threw Slattery a scathing look. “Bloody fantastic.”

“Or go work for the Department of Magical Games and Sports.”

“Wonderful. The sodding Ministry. Glad I came here, then – I was hoping professional Quidditch would be a stepping stone to the hallowed halls of the Ministry.”

Slattery rubbed his face wearily. “Ok, James, I’m done with this conversation. I get it – you’re upset. You’re upset, the team’s upset – I’m a Quidditch manager, not a bleeding therapist! I just don’t know what to tell you, kid. You were great. You were a star. Loads of fans still love you. None of this was your fault. You got hurt, and it’s rubbish, I agree. None of it was your fault, and you get the short end of the wand.” He sighed and looked evenly at the ragged mess that was James Potter. “But I have a job to do. And that’s to make sure we win. It’s harsh, James, I’m sorry. You’re not an idiot. You know how the game is played. Quidditch is not a – ”

“Faithful mistress,” finished James in a dull voice. “I know. But let’s not bring women into this.”

Slattery grinned and rolled his eyes. “You’ll still get the girls, James. They’ll be all over you, wanting to comfort you or whatever it is that women like to do.”

James let out a mirthless laugh. “Hoskins is going to get the girls now.”

“No, he’s not, because I’m going to have him practicing twenty-five hours a day. And you know what, kid? He’ll still never be close to what you were.”

James nodded at nothing in particular and rose from his chair.

“I still hate you, Mike.”

“It’s ok. It’s a risk I assumed when I took the job. Take the week off, James. I’ll make your excuses to the team. Get it out of your system, then get your head back into the game, because I’ll expect you at practice next Monday.”

Dazedly, James lifted one hand and ruffled his already unkempt hair. He could barely recall the contents of the conversation they’d just had. It was like a bad dream, hazy and disjointed, nonsensical, and still utterly terrifying. He gave a vague wave in Slattery’s direction and found himself floating out the door as if in a trance.

Without thinking about it, he drifted down a row of lockers and came to an instinctive stop in front of his own locker, number twelve. As he wavered there in front of the wall of polished metal – they’d finally replaced those rusty old lockers three years earlier – his eyes narrowed, and his mouth tightened. The fuzzy feeling in his head ebbed away as anger, shame, and disappointment flooded his stomach, forming a nauseating concoction. His hands clenched into fists, and though he drew several long, deep breaths, he didn’t find it the least bit calming.

Fury overtook him – fury at himself, at his manager, at his team…at everyone and everything within a hundred-mile radius. He barely knew who he was anymore. Nor did he feel remotely in control of his own body as he drew back his foot and kicked a dent the size of a crater into the bottom of locker number twelve.

It wasn’t even satisfying. He didn’t know exactly when he had left behind that phase of adolescence during which throwing and kicking things seemed to fix every problem imaginable…all he knew was that it definitely wasn’t working now. Why couldn’t it be that simple anymore? He stood in numb silence as the bang of his foot against metal echoed off the walls of the locker room and cascaded around him. And then, as his eyes began to sting in a telltale manner, he found himself drowning in the desire – no, the need – to get away from the Puddlemere facility before it all made him physically ill.




He couldn’t get home fast enough. He couldn’t open the door fast enough, and he couldn’t slam it behind him fast enough. And now that he was home, in his quiet, desolate flat, he had nothing to do except…nothing. That was perfectly fine with him.

He threw himself onto his ratty old sofa, not even bothering to clear off the various articles of clothing strewn over it. Were they dirty or clean? He couldn’t remember. That habit had always driven his mother crazy when he lived at home.

Puddlemere paid decently, and he could have bought a better sofa, but James liked the old one, which had once belonged to his Uncle Bill and Aunt Fleur. It was comfortable and worn-in, and, thankfully, it was one of the few pieces of furniture they had owned that wasn’t purple. At one point it had been cream-colored, although now it had taken on a dirty sand color – Aunt Fleur would die of shock if she ever saw what had become of it. But James loved it. Every time the stuffing started coming out, he’d just patch it up again.

Lily had nearly had a fit when she found out he didn’t have any throw pillows – apparently they were a basic necessity. James thought she was mad, but he accepted the pillows she bought him for Christmas one year and – although he would never admit it to her – he was extremely fond of them. One was red, for Gryffindor, with a massive, glittering Snitch embroidered on it. One was blue, with a pattern of Puddlemere bulrushes – maybe he wasn’t so fond of that one anymore. And one was shocking pink and fuzzy. Lily’s idea of a joke. James’ friends always took the mickey out of him for having it, but that one was his favorite.

From his spot on the sofa, James could see the pile of letters resting on the kitchen table. He had been bombarded with all this post in the past couple of days, from friends and family members, but he hadn’t read any of it after the letter from his dad. Probably a load of 'I’m sorry's and 'Everything will be ok's and 'How are you doing's. He wanted none of it.

His family was far too large, and his parents had far too many friends. He could only guess at how much post would continue to arrive over the next few days, from people he hadn’t seen in years and had no desire to talk to now.

With a groan, James pulled the pink fluffy pillow over his face and fell into a fitful sleep, dreaming of white-hot Snitches that streaked across the sky like shooting stars, leading him on a pointless pursuit to the ends of the earth and back again.

Chapter 4: Black Hole
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It’s surprising, what you notice about the most mundane things when you have no ambition in life but to sit and stare at them. On Tuesday, James lay on his sofa and stared at the ceiling for hours. He noticed several miniscule cracks that, by the end of the day, seemed gargantuan now that they were so readily apparent to him. He counted them, fell asleep, awoke a few hours later, and got halfway through naming each of them before he fell asleep again.

On Wednesday, he contemplated the northern wall of his flat; after about seven hours, he determined that there was really nothing wrong with it. On Thursday, he decided that the southern wall in the same room was not actually at a ninety-degree angle to the eastern and western walls – perhaps eighty-seven degrees on one end and ninety-three on the other – and this bothered him so much that he turned his attention back to the ceiling.

On Friday, after waking up sometime around noon, he began to assess the shape of his fireplace, and he was about an hour into this endeavor when he heard a knock at the door. He ignored it, of course; he couldn’t care less who was there and hoped they would bugger off immediately.

The visitor, however, was persistent, knocking several more times before calling, “James! If you don’t open this door right now, I’m going to break in and start throwing all of your pants out the window!”

Recognizing the voice, and believing five minutes of knocking to be quite enough, James gave in and opened the door to find his cousin Fred staring anxiously back at him.

“Are you the search party?” he asked flatly. He walked away, leaving the door open and waving Fred inside.

“That’s not funny, James. You’ve scared everyone half to death…not answering any owls for days…you know what that makes people think?”

“Whole family talking about me?”

“Yes, you idiot. And they don’t know I’m here, so don’t look at me like I’m some kind of a traitor. I’m not going to make you talk to anyone.”

James relaxed slightly. “Thanks, Fred.”

Fred gave a great sigh and loosened the scarf around his neck. “And why the bleeding hinkypunk couldn’t I get here through the Floo Network?”

James shrugged in an apathetic manner. “I had it disconnected for awhile. Didn’t want any visitors.” He gave his cousin a bleak smile. “Never could take a hint, could you, you stupid git?”

“So you don’t answer anyone’s owls, but you’ll contact the Ministry to get your fireplace disconnected?” Fred removed his hat and smacked James’ arm with it. “And what if there were an emergency here and you couldn’t use the front door?”

“You’re worse than my mother, you know that?”

A moment of companionable silence passed between them, and Fred gave a small shake of his head as he glanced around at James’ tiny flat.

“Merlin, James, look at the state of this place.”

James took in their surroundings. His clothes were littered all over the place, and the kitchen table was covered with a thick layer of Daily Prophets, Quidditch magazines, and the countless letters he had received over the past week…but as far as James could tell, it was nothing too far out of the ordinary.

“What? It’s always messy.”

“Yeah, but now it’s depressing messy. When was the last time you shaved? Or changed your clothes, for that matter?”

James shrugged.

“You haven’t been drinking a load, have you?” Fred’s eyes scanned the room warily.

“I’m not really the type to drink away my misery.”

“Well, maybe you ought to. Come on, get cleaned up, we’re going to the Leaky Cauldron.”

“No way. I’m not going out in public. And you know how friendly Hannah is with my parents.”

“Hannah won’t say anything to anybody. She’s a bartender, it’s her job to keep secrets.”

James gave Fred a dubious look. “I still don’t want to go out – people seeing me – ”

“Put a hat on, stupid. And nobody’s going to bother you at the Leaky – we’ll just lie low as long as you don’t go doing one prat thing or another.”

“Why can’t we just go to a Muggle pub and watch football, then?”

“No way, I’m not going to watch one of those mad Muggle sports you like to watch when you’re all depressed over Quidditch.” Fred crossed his arms and added, “I’m not taking no for an answer, and I’m not leaving. If you don’t come with me, I’m just going to move in here with you, and I’m bringing my two cats.”

In the end, Fred won, and James found himself trailing his cousin down Charing Cross Road towards the Leaky Cauldron. It was one of the most frigid Januaries in recent memory, and James cursed himself for shutting off his Floo connection. Of course, this really wasn’t his fault – it was Fred’s, obviously.

Even with his head down and his eyes focused straight ahead, he could feel the other patrons’ eyes on him when he entered the pub. Judging him. Laughing at him. Probably planning to hex him, if they were Puddlemere fans.

“Fred, everyone’s looking at me.”

“Nobody’s looking at you, you conceited git.”

Normally, James would have laughed at Fred’s comment. But now, he shrugged it off and stared at the floor in moody silence.

Halfway to the bar, James and Fred were nearly bowled over by a small boy rushing towards the fireplaces that lined the far wall.

“Hey!” said James in bewilderment. He caught the boy’s arm to stop him toppling over. “Careful there, mate!”

“Calvin!” A harried-looking man, perhaps five or six years older than James, followed a short distance behind the boy, grappling with a few bulky parcels that had probably come from Diagon Alley. “What have I said about running ahead? What do you say to someone when you bump into them?” He threw the two cousins an apologetic glance, raising his eyebrows in recognition as he took in James’ features.

James made a frustrated noise in the back of his throat and instinctively adjusted his hat.

Calvin looked up at James. “I’m sorry…” His voice trailed off, and his blue eyes widened eagerly. “Hey!” he exclaimed, breaking into a grin. “Don’t you play for Puddlemere United?”

James returned a half-smile. “Yeah. Yeah, I do.”

In a manner of speaking, he added glumly to himself.

“So...so you play with Jamie Hoskins!”

James chewed the inside of his cheek. “Yeah…I play with Jamie.”

He glanced around the room, positive that all eyes must be on him at this exact moment. He was going to kill Fred. The Leaky Cauldron, of all places!

“Do you think you could ask him to send me an autograph?” Calvin’s eyes danced, even while James’ stomach plummeted and what was left of his smile slid off his face. Fred squeezed James’ shoulder as Calvin barreled ahead with his request. “I’ve always wanted his autograph, but we haven’t been to any matches in a long time because we haven’t got very much money.”

“Calvin!” The man, who James assumed was Calvin’s father, spoke the boy’s name sharply and turned slightly pink in the cheeks. His eyes met James’ in another expression of apology, but this time James recognized the look of a man who had lost all faith in his own self-worth. It was like looking in a mirror.

He dropped his eyes as Calvin’s father put his hand on the boy’s shoulder and started to steer him away with a mumbled apology.

Don’t be an arse, James, he thought to himself. It’s not the kid’s fault.

“Um, wait,” he called quietly. The boy and his father turned around to face James. “I, um…I can have Hoskins – you know, Jamie – send him one, if that’s alright with you.”

Calvin’s dad cracked a smile. “That’d be nice – right, Cal?” The small boy nodded eagerly.

“So…I should have him send it to…?”

“Calvin Merrick,” answered the boy’s father. James took the family’s address and waved goodbye to Calvin before resuming his shameful journey towards the bar.

“Nobody heard that, mate,” said Fred quietly when James pulled his hat down so that it nearly covered his eyes.

James couldn’t even look at his cousin. Even worse than the idea that a roomful of perfect strangers had seen that interaction, was the fact that Fred had seen it. Fred had been James’ best friend from the moment James was born. When they were young, Fred had been like an older brother to him; and even though Fred was only a year older, James had looked up to him like a god. Even in adulthood, sometimes it seemed to James that Fred’s good opinion was the only one that mattered.

“Hello, Fred, James,” said Hannah as they took their seats. She smiled in a friendly way, but her eyes were cautious and her voice measured. James realized she was taking great care not to do anything that might offend him, including being overly sunny. Of course, he thought acerbically, of course even Hannah, who didn’t follow Quidditch, would know what had happened to him.

“Um, James,” she continued carefully, “your mum contacted me.”

Of course she had. James groaned and placed his forehead against the bar counter.

“She says you haven’t been returning anyone’s owls, and, um…she actually asked me to let her know if I see you in here.”

“Oh, please don’t, Hannah. I’m not in the mood to talk to anyone, I’m only here because Fred made me.”

Hannah tilted her head to one side and gave James a reproachful look. “I won’t say anything, but…well, I know it’s none of my business, but owl your mother today or tomorrow, okay? She worries about you.”

“Fine.” He realized he must sound like a petulant child. Funnily enough, he didn’t care.

Hannah seemed satisfied. “Now,” she said, once again in bartender mode, rather than Ginny-Potter’s-spy mode, “what will you boys have to drink?”

“Well, I’ll have firewhiskey,” said Fred, “and he’ll have a Flaming Chimaera.”

“Are you trying to kill me??” sputtered James as Hannah went to fetch their drinks.

“I’m trying to get you to feel something, even if it’s just a burning sensation in your throat.”

“What am I going to be feeling after a couple of those? You may as well give me a tranquilizer and some anesthetic.”

“You’re already completely numb, James. It’s freaking me out.”

When Hannah returned with their drinks, James raised his eyebrows at the bright red concoction in his tumbler.

“Well,” he said, raising his glass, “here’s to being dead and buried at twenty-five.”

Fred rolled his eyes. “Here’s to you, Sunshine.”

They sat in silence for what could have been hours or minutes – it didn’t matter much. At occasional intervals, Fred made light conversation about his radio show, his parents, and the various methods he was considering to kill his sister’s boyfriend. But he didn’t push James to talk about anything. Fred knew too well how to deal with people in general and James Potter in particular.

James felt a slight twinge of guilt for not contacting Fred within the past week – surely, he should have been in touch with his best friend, if nobody else. But the weight pressing in on his chest and the hollow sensation in the pit of his stomach minimized all other feelings.

He didn’t even want to be here, in the cheerful, brightly lit pub, with Hannah humming to herself as she tended to a handful of patrons, several of whom cast furtive glances in James’ direction when they thought he wasn’t paying attention. No, he would much rather have stayed at home finding patterns in the cracks on the ceiling. But at least Fred meant well.

Fred also had a way of getting people to talk without even realizing they were caving in. It was the result of a highly technical combination of charisma and knowing which drinks to buy for someone. And so James finally found himself participating in what had previously been a one-sided conversation.

“You know what?” James wagged his finger in front of his cousin’s face at the end of a long-winded rant. After three or four of these Flaming Whatevers, it all started to taste pretty good. “Everyone is trying to tell me what I can do when they chuck me off Puddlemere. Everyone is telling me how I can move along with my life and just forget about this. Everyone has a bloody solution. But nobody wants to listen to how I’m feeling about it.”

Fred chuckled into his glass. “You sound like a girl.”

“Yeah, well you look like one.”

“There’s the cousin I know and love!” Fred drained the rest of his drink.

Their laughter died down and another moment of silence passed, during which James felt himself deflate even further.

“This is bollocks!” he moaned, dragging one hand down his face. “What am I going to do?”

Fred thought for a few seconds before replying, “What do you want me to say? You just finished telling me you don’t want to hear any solutions.”

“What, are you saying you’ve got one?”

“Well…I wasn’t planning on saying anything yet, but now you mention it, yeah, I do.”

“Go on, then, genius.”

“I want to do a Quidditch segment on my show. We need someone good, and there’s nobody who knows the sport better than you do. No, no – hear me out, okay?” he insisted as James tried to interrupt. “I wish you wouldn’t let your injury destroy you like this. It’s nothing you could have prevented, but now you’ve got to deal with it. You can’t spend the next few months lying around your flat – I won’t allow it. I mean…hell, it’s like you think you never had anything going for you besides your Quidditch talent. That’s not true, and there are lots of things you can do, although you obviously don’t have to live Quidditch-free, either. Hence, the segment on my show.”

“Brilliant.” James’ mouth twitched as he stared into his glass. “So I get to be the washed-up former player who can’t do anything but commentate.”

Fred gave his cousin a sharp look. “I don’t think you’re washed-up.”

“You’re the only one.”

A pregnant pause filled the space between them as James swirled his drink around in his tumbler. Then, without warning, he received a smart whack on the head with a rolled-up newspaper clutched in Fred’s hand.

“Oi! What was that for?!”

Fred shrugged and raised his eyebrows reasonably. “Just making sure we exhaust all possible avenues of recovery.”

“Sod-head.”

“Dung-brain.”

James punched his cousin in the arm and received another smack from Fred’s newspaper.

“Come on,” laughed Fred, “finish your drink and I’ll get you home.”



The following Monday arrived far too quickly for James’ liking – as if it had been barreling at top speed to get there before the preceding week was even over. He gave some serious thought to skiving off practice again, but ultimately decided not to lower his teammates’ opinions of him any further…if that was even possible.

He kept his head down that day, and the following day, too, following instructions obediently but remaining as solitary as possible. Calvin Merrick stuck in the back of his mind, but he just couldn’t bring himself to relay the request to Hoskins yet. He may as well have just lain down and asked Hoskins to kick him a few times instead. Perhaps, he thought, if he avoided Hoskins’ smug face and laughing eyes all week, it would eventually be easier to humiliate himself like that.

All such thoughts went out the window on Wednesday, when Eleanor asked James to run some drills with the active Seeker. They were simple drills, routine and instinctive; James could have done them in his sleep. But it occurred to him that it was wholly unnecessary to place him alongside the person who was now, undoubtedly, the more capable flyer.

Hoskins basked in the glory of the situation, of course; he flew much more ardently than he usually did during practices. For the better part of two hours, James tried to ignore it.

But you couldn’t be a professional Quidditch player and not have a competitive streak. So, as the two Seekers raced up the pitch during a speed drill, James put on a burst of acceleration normally reserved only for Snitch sightings. Whether it was his trusty broom, or innate capability, or the fact that he just wanted it more, James left Hoskins trailing miserably behind him. And for about two seconds, it made him feel big again.

He wasn’t an idiot, though. The moment his foot touched the ground, he realized how meaningless his little display had been. As he walked off the pitch to take his mid-practice break, Hoskins voiced exactly what James was thinking.

“That’s impressive, Potter, flying really fast in a straight line. As long as the Snitch follows a linear path, I guess you should be alright.”

James froze. A voice inside him told him to keep walking, but he disregarded it and turned around slowly. Giving Hoskins a cold stare, he summoned every last drop of arrogance from the tips of his fingers and toes and allowed it to saturate his voice.

“You know, when I was an active player, I had a ninety percent record catching the Snitch. Should I tell you where you can shove your seventy percent, or do you have enough sense of direction to figure it out yourself?”

Hoskins had enough sense and self-discipline not to escalate the situation any further, though his eyes sparked with indignation. The two players went their separate ways, and, fortunately, James spent the rest of that day’s practice with the other reserve players.

There was no way he was going to ask Hoskins for anything having to do with his autograph now. It was out of the question. He still had some shred of pride. It was hidden, but it was sharp and grated against the underside of his skin, and that’s how he knew it was still there.

Maybe the kid would just think the autograph had been lost in the post. With any luck, it would only reflect poorly on Hoskins, and not on James. Nobody would have reason to think James hadn’t held up his end of the deal; he had always been a man of his word. He was the player who stuck around the longest after matches to make the kids happy – though, really, who was he kidding? He always said – and thought – that he did it for the kids, but he’d be lying if he didn’t admit that it made him feel good about himself.

And that was why Calvin Merrick wasn’t going to get an autograph from his favorite Quidditch player…because James Potter decided his feelings were more important than a little boy’s.

He got dressed slowly after practice, waiting until everyone had gone before shutting his locker. Heading towards the door, he raised his eyes to meet those of his reflection in the mirror.

“You’re really pathetic,” he said quietly.

His reflection said the same thing.

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