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Ripples In The Wake

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Sometimes, it killed Katie to admit how much she loved Quidditch, how much she lived for the sport.

What she should have done in school, and would have if she'd listened to her parents and McGonagall, was pay a little more attention to her NEWTs - and tried to care a little bit more about something besides flying. She could have been a mediwitch, a hit wizard, good Merlin she could have worked for Gringott's. Instead, her life was thrown to chance, and her ability to throw a quaffle. Instead, her life was spent playing a game, when she could be making the world a better place - doing something meaningful. The only thing was, for all she tried, she couldn't do it differently. It was what she wanted to be doing, what she felt most comfortable with.

There were no delusions there either; much as she'd like to pretend otherwise, Katie wasn't much more than a Quidditch player.

"You're going to wear a path in the floor," Angelina's mild remark cut into Katie's thoughts.

She paused in guilt, shooting the other woman a sheepish grin. Angelina had been sitting on the sofa, watching in amusement as Katie paced in front of her. Alicia had gone to the loo, but she'd be out soon enough. The two of them had come over with the intent of a girl's night - wine, food, and talk - but Katie was very well aware that she'd been distracted from the moment she'd opened the door, and the night had just gone downhill from there.

"I just wish. . . ." she began.

"The owl would come," Alicia parroted, coming back into the living room and plopping down beside Angelina on the sofa, "we know, you've said that about ten times since we got here."

Katie sighed, sitting down herself in a chair beside the window, "It's just hard not knowing; even worse, I think, than the disappointment if the owl just comes around to tell me to bugger off and go back to playing in some bush league in the Hebrides. I just want to know, rather than this horrific gut churning suspense."

For the last year she'd been playing in exactly that, a small independent league nobody had ever heard of, after a flop in open tryouts with the Quidditch League teams. She'd acquitted herself well enough, but it was just that, meaningless play. Still, because of that, and in spite of her injury at the battle at Hogwarts, the Tornadoes had offered her a chance at their closed tryouts over the summer. That and the fact they were desperate for new blood of course, and might have offered a chance to a bloody inferi, but still - it was an opportunity she hadn't really expected.

The tryouts had gone well enough, at least from her vantage point, and the coach had said they'd owl around on Friday night, letting everybody know.

That was why she was currently unable to pay attention to anything of substance, always straining her ears for a scratching at the window. It wasn't that she wouldn't survive having to go back to the outskirts of Scotland, and it wasn't that there wouldn't be other opportunities, but there were no words for how much she wanted a positive response all the same.

Alicia could mostly understand the worry; she was a chaser for the Harpies, after having had to claw her way through the reserves. Still, one of her talents had always been the ability to cultivate indifference, or at least fake it really well. She didn't care if she played Quidditch, worked in an ice cream parlour, or became Minister for Magic. She accepted it all with equanimity and could find happiness in any situation. Angelina was a little different, in that she'd eschewed Quidditch despite having the opportunities Katie could only dream of. With her too, there had rarely ever been any doubt that she would always be able to achieve whatever she set out to; there was something about Angelina that didn't exactly allow for the suggestion of failure. Still, her matter of fact nature and unswerving support were almost more of a comfort in situations like this.

"You'll get on the team," Alicia rolled her eyes, taking a sip of the mostly forgotten wine.

"You weren't there," Katie shot back, "there were some excellent chasers trying out. I managed not to lob a pass at the manager's head I suppose, but about that I really don't have any idea how well it went."

Angelina shrugged, "Either way, there's no changing the results now. Sit back, drink, and we'll either get pissed in celebration or depression when the news comes in."

That of course was easier said then done, but Katie sighed and reached for her own glass, leaning back in her chair. Angelina started in on a story from work, about her idiot of a training partner, whom she would kill herself before being paired with him in truth - nearing the end of their auror training, assignments would be handed down sooner rather than later. Always a wave a wand first and ask questions later sort of bloke, he and Angelina had never particularly got along. This time it had been a training mission with the senior aurors, going after a few of the straggling Death Eaters hiding out in London.

Normally Katie actually enjoyed the other woman's work stories, even if they might have made her slightly envious, but with her present state of mind the knock on her flat door as a distraction was almost welcome.

Shrugging her apologies as she headed towards he door, fully expecting her crotchety old neighbour who would demand they cast a stronger muffliato like she did every week to be the one knocking, it was a complete surprise to find Oliver and Lee standing on the other side of the door.

"Merlin there's some nasty anti-apparition wards around your building," Lee was complaining, "we tried to get in that way, and ended up with boils and more than a few bruises from being thrown a few hundred metres from the front door."

"Like it would be so much harder to apparate in front of the building and walk in in the first place," Katie rolled her eyes, stepping aside to let them in.

Her jest was half distracted too, her eyes lingering over Oliver despite her best intentions, even as he offered a half smile and followed Lee in. She hadn't seen much of him in months, not since the night that they had headed over to Hogwarts. During the Quidditch off season he always tended to spend it at home with his family in Scotland, with the occasional occurrence of crashing on Lee's sofa, but this year there had been no detours to London. With the relief of Voldemort's reign behind them, it had been a time for family and friends more than not, and with Oliver's outspoken tendencies as a more public figure and Quidditch star - his family had been wanting him close more than usual according to Alicia, who was the best out of all of them at staying in contact.

She'd expected more of a respite before seeing him back in England for the Quidditch season, captaining Puddlemere yet again.

It wasn't that she'd been actively avoiding him, at least not since directly after that night, but she'd been looking at avoiding any direct one on one contact. There had been a lot more that had happened too that night before they'd apparated over to the Hog's Head and gone in to Hogwarts, that she was now trying to push them past having to ever actually talking about it. She knew that it wasn't going to work forever, not seeing him. They might not be best mates, but they were friends the lot of them, even if being so called adults meant they couldn't get together as much as they would like.

Oliver walking in meant a round of hugs and greetings, which Katie avoided by going to get some more drinks from the kitchen.

When she came back everybody had settled around her much too small living room. Alicia had settled herself into Lee's lap, and their hands kept wandering, which everybody studiously ignored. They were adamant they weren't a couple, they were only shagging when the mood struck, but the rest of the group knew different. Angelina was sitting on the other end of the sofa still, rolling her eyes. Oliver had stolen her chair, and Katie settled down onto the floor after handing out drinks.

"Merlin Bell," Lee said, tearing his gaze away from Alicia, "last time I checked, you were drowning in galleons, couldn't you afford a bit of a nicer place? Some more furniture?"

His comment spurred her to look around her own flat. It wasn't big, but it was big enough - it was only her wasn't it? And if its furnishings were a little spartan, she didn't spend a lot of time here as it was. Besides, it was hers - entirely hers, paid for by her own money and earnings, which hadn't exactly been plentiful as a wanna-be Quidditch player. To Katie, that was the most important distinction, and always had been.

"My family is drowning in galleons," she clarified, taking a large sip of wine, "not me."

The most important distinction.

She'd never really fit in with her family, elitist purebloods that they were, while she was nothing but a Quidditch obsessed female with less than elite social skills. To be fair, she'd tried, and she'd forgiven a lot - but from the moment Voldemort came into power the break had been inevitable. The extended family was the type that would give their fortunes to a pureblood agenda, and they had, with probably more than a few of them in the Death Eater ranks. It had been her greatest act of defiance, breaking from them as definitively as she was able, and to her it had seemed like her most courageous act - even if somebody on the outside might not see it that way. They were her family, that wasn't just a word to her, and no matter what type of people they were it hadn't been simple. For all they might not have approved of her, in their own way they loved her.

She was never going to be running head first into a group of dark wizards with wand drawn, or be the 'woman who lived', but a sense of family wasn't the only thing she had sacrificed for her morals.

Angelina reached over, giving Katie's shoulder a reassuring pat.

"You never seemed the classy sort anyway," Lee said with a grin, trying to break the tension. Katie grabbed a cushion from the sofa, throwing it at him, and nearly upending Alicia as he dodged.

"So," Alicia said, once they'd got themselves righted, "you're back early before the start of the season Oliver, normally you wait until about the last minute before portkeying in."

He shrugged, settling back in the chair. Katie had been studiously not paying attention to him, but she thought for a moment his eyes had settled on her. "My mom was driving me spare, truth be told. Besides, we've got a few spots to fill on the team - tryouts are tomorrow."

"Ah yes," Angelina said, a hint of sarcasm in her tone, "I forgot, you are the exalted captain of Puddlemere aren't you? You must be feeling like king of the world having people under your heel again." Her voice was even, but there was a barb laced into the words.

It had been like this for a few years between them, at least on Angelina's part. Katie shot the other woman a look, but the one Angelina shot back was bland. It wasn't as if worse had never passed her lips before. She never quite understood it, the mild animosity held in spite of the superficial friendship, but Angelina had never really explained - citing 'arrogance' as the only real criteria. Somehow, Katie was sure there had to be a little more to it than that. Besides, much as she loved Angelina, it wasn't like there wasn't at least a little bit of arrogance there too.

Oliver raised an eyebrow, but answered as if it was Alicia who had said it, with the comment truly meant in jest. "It's better now. See, the difference between now and school is I'm working with people just as dedicated as I am - I don't have to make the effort to whip their arses into shape."

"Questioning our dedication, the best way to ingratiate yourself after being away for months."

"Merlin Johnson, what crawled up your arse this morning?"

They were off then, trading verbal jabs - some in good fun, and some a little less so. Katie had generally given up on understanding Angelina and Oliver's dynamic.

When it came right down to it, she didn't even really understand their own.

Any thoughts about that were interrupted by what she thought was the sound of an owl against the window, and Katie jumped to her feet, only to realize yet again that it was only a branch scraping against the glass. Sighing, she settled back down on the floor, realizing after that the others were staring at her.

"I'm waiting for an owl," she said, embarrassed, as Lee and Oliver seemed vastly amused. "I had, uh, a Quidditch tryout for the Tornadoes. Word was supposed to come around today with those who had made the team."

It had been one thing to have the girls here, another thing to have the blokes. Mostly, it was because it made her feel a little uncomfortable to have Oliver there while she was so nervous over the owl. He was the Quidditch star, whom had never had to worry about whether or not there would be a next game, or even a first one. It made her uncomfortable in this case, because she was the scrub of the league, and that was if this owl contained the best case scenario. It was more humbling.

"Didn't they win the league championship year before last?" Lee asked.

Oliver nodded, "They did - and then finished dead last in May. Their team was mostly muggleborns, nearly their entire starting chaser line for sure, who either escaped Great Britain or were taken into Azkaban and injured. They're bloody desperate for anything decent to fill the brooms of the departed players."

Everybody around the room couldn't help but wince at the comment, and Katie tried to raise her ire, but she had known the truth of why she had got a tryout - they had been desperate. It just didn't make it any easier to hear. "Thanks Oliver," she said dryly, taking a sip of her wine. At the same time, she knew that he didn't mean it maliciously. It was just Oliver. Not dense exactly, but not the most sensitive of blokes either, at least when it came to things Quidditch related. To him it was both life and a business.

This time he had the decency to look slightly chagrined, "I didn't mean. . . "

"I know," she said quickly, standing up again, needing to walk around again and burn off her nervous energy.

Oliver watched as Katie walked into the kitchen, her left leg dragging slightly behind her, with her hand clenching in pain every so often. It wasn't perceptible unless you knew it was there, unless you knew to look for it - but it was there, all the same, her disabilities. That's why it surprised him all the more, that she was good enough to overcome that in Quidditch, especially not as an incumbent. Still, all his eyes could do was narrow as he watched her massage her leg slightly as she stood at the counter in the kitchen, rummaging for some food to give to all of them. He couldn't help but flash inadvertently to the memory of hearing about the Death Eater curse hitting her that night at Hogwarts, her body writhing in pain. She'd been one of the lucky ones that night, she hadn't died, but she hadn't come out all intact either. He hadn't entirely been able to believe she was okay though, until this moment seeing her now. After the battle she'd denied him entrance to her room at St. Mungo's, and had been gone to places unknown by the time he'd been ready to knock the mediwitches out to gain entrance.

Breaking his gaze from her, he found Alicia watching him closely, which was more than a little disconcerting.

"You should talk to her," she said quietly for his ears only, as Lee had leaned towards Angelina - the two of them having their own conversation, their expressions turning more serious than they had been previously.

"What about?" Oliver asked with projected indifference, taking a large sip of his drink as a defense against saying anything further.

She gave him a frustrated look, but only shook her head before turning her attention away rather than harping on it further, as Lee's own attention was sliding back to her.

It did made him wonder though how much she knew - how much Angelina knew, about what bit of the past lay between Katie and him. If he had to guess, and it was a well educated guess, it would be that they knew everything. The birds had always told each other everything when it came to their personal lives, and almost everything besides as well - he couldn't imagine that had changed much over time, even as they had changed as people. It was always a bit disconcerting, knowing that somebody else knew his personal business as well as him.

Still feigning ignorance even in his own mind at Alicia's comments, he found his attention drawn back to Katie as she entered the room again with a bag of crisps.

"Back to somebody I would like to see," he said, his eyes shifting back to the others, "where is George? I didn't realize we were just crashing a bird's night here."

He might be a bit dense when it came to the interpersonal, but he didn't entirely miss the expression that passed over Angelina's face, "He hasn't responded to any of our owls in awhile."

Oliver could remember the last time he had seen George, it wasn't easy to forget. It had been a distant sight at Fred's funeral, as he stood there - not smiling, not crying, not doing anything through the whole proceedings. He'd tried once or twice, he had, but his knocks on the door had gone unanswered and his owls had never been returned. Then, he'd been back in Scotland, and he hadn't tried again. He had never done well with emotional confrontation, unless it was anger over a Quidditch match, and he knew he had taken the coward's way out. He knew too there had been a bit of a burden that had fallen on Lee and Angelina, from the owls he'd received from the other man, to keep some of it off his family as George had slowly begun to slide into more and more self destructive tendencies.

Lee was paying more attention to the rest of them again then, his hand resting on Alicia's thigh. "He's gone to Greece," he said quietly, leaving it at that, but there was a look that passed between him and Angelina.

"So he left a note this time." Her voice was just as quiet.

"Not exactly."

Before any of them could inquire further, there came a more definitive noise at the window, and Oliver was only slightly amused when he watched Katie jump to her feet and dart over. He could understand the devastation of a rejection, even if he'd never courted one.

It was funny, but she was the only one who'd truly matched him in passion for the game. It wasn't egotistical to say that he was the standard to match, it was true. None of the rest of them had ever shown the dedication; Angelina had been a terror as captain after him mostly because she loved to win. They didn't love Quidditch, they didn't rise and fall with it. He didn't judge them for that, because Hogwarts was Hogwarts when they had played, but they didn't understand him either. Katie came the closest, she always had. She didn't have quite the same natural talent as the others, though he would never tell her that to her face, but she had the passion, and that more than fully compensated.

He would have offered her a tryout for Puddlemere if he'd thought for a second she'd take it. Injuries aside, friendship aside, he knew exactly what the team would be getting if they took her on. Her leg wouldn't hurt her flying too much, not if she wanted it bad enough, which she obviously did. A different woman would have given up on Quidditch a long time ago, likely right after her flops of tryouts the year before.

Katie opened the window to the spotted owl that sat there, practically yanking the letter from it's beak.

They all sat there in eager anticipation, watching as she quickly unfolded it and scanned the contents.

There was no mistaking the joy that spread across her face, the wide grin that lit up the room. "I'm on the team," she said, as if she couldn't believe it, then louder, "I made the team!" She looked so amazingly happy, happier than he had never seen her.

As the girls bounded up to offer hugs, and he and Lee offered more verbal congratulations, all Oliver could think at the back of his mind was that he would like to be able to put that expression on somebody's face. On hers.

It was a little disconcerting.

 

******************************

 

Katie had been flying high since the night before - metaphorically, not physically. She and the rest had practically cleaned her flat of alcohol, and everything was a haze from about midnight on. Not that she could regret it, it had been a brilliant evening. They had toasted her for a good ten minutes, then to everything else that they could think of. It had been much better then celebrating by herself. It was the one consolation of giving up her family by birth, she had the best family by choice a woman could ask for.

However the next morning, it meant she was paying for it slightly.

Her head ached, and her mouth felt like the desert, and she couldn't contemplate the thought of anything substantial in her stomach. Fortunately she didn't have to report to the Tutshill training grounds until the next day, and she could wallow in her hangover in peace. Grabbing the blandest cereal she could find, she plopped down on the sofa, eating directly from the box as she waved her wand to start the wireless on a very quiet setting.

When the knock came, this time it was definitely more intrusive than welcoming.

She would have tossed on a robe, or transfigured her clothes, and done something with her hair - but the knock came again, louder and more insistent when she just tried to ignore it. Sighing, Katie popped to her feet to answer it.

This time, it was Oliver standing there on his own.

His mouth quirked when he took in the sight of her, "Well, don't you look like absolute shite?"

She gave him a dirty look, "You really know how to compliment a bird, don't you Wood?"

As he passed by her, not explaining why he was there, she tried to tell herself she didn't care that she did look like she'd been chewed up and spit out by a hippogryff. Still, that didn't stop her hand from drifting down to try to straighten the pyjamas she'd been lounging in, and her from wondering exactly how atrocious her hair looked after a drunken sleep. Not that Oliver would really care. He never really seemed to notice her that way. Oh, he had, that once - but even then he wasn't really seeing her.

Deflecting that though, Katie only barely responded in time when he tossed her a small vial - snagging it out of the air.

"Hangover potion," he explained, "I've got a stash for when players show up to practice after a night out on the town."

Considering she was no good at brewing herself, and the cost was a little dear now that she didn't have Weasleys supplying her, Katie accepted it and downed most of it in a single gulp. "You say that like you're too virtuous to ever have a morning after," she sighed, "or a crazy night in the first place. Honestly. . . "

"We know that's not true," he said quietly, finally looking at her.

He was acknowledging that night, before they'd apparated over to Hogwarts, and Katie found she didn't want him to. She would be perfectly content to ignore it forever, and to shove it aside. Their friendship was maybe superficial enough to withstand that. It wasn't that she was hurt, at least not now, but neither of them came off good in that tale. Instead of pursuing the opening he'd left her, knowing she had never been good at emotional confrontation either, she deflected the question instead.

"What are you doing here Oliver?" Katie asked, "It's too bloody early in the morning for your brand of crazy, hung-over or not."

"Practise," he said, "we're going to go flying. You're left side has been shite since the curse hasn't it, since you got out of St. Mungo's? I'm going to help you work on that before your first game."

He really didn't realize how insulting his offer was. She had been working herself like a demon, since the day she'd been released from the hospital. She was the one who had got herself to the point she could throw ambidextrously again at full strength, and she was the one who had taught herself to battle through the pain of her left leg - keeping it out of the equation as much as possible, though it as a dead weight didn't feel much better. She'd managed it all herself, while he'd been holed out in Scotland. Just like the first time, when she'd touched the cursed necklace that had nearly killed her mentally and physically, she'd put herself back together again. It's how she made the team.

"I'm as strong as I'm ever going to be Oliver," she said, taking down the rest of the potion, "and bugger off, I did it on my own. I don't need the big strong captain of Puddlemere to help me." Like she could call herself a proper player if she wasn't in the best condition she could be, and he was acting like she had just been relatively slacking off. She might not be psychotic, but she was a Quidditch player, for better or for worse.

"However," she amended, tossing the empty vial back to him, feeling more like her normal self already, "I won't turn down a chance to practice with something besides charmed targets. I'll take you up on that offer."

He nodded his acceptance, but rather than tell her to go grab her broom, or suggest they make the best of daylight hours - he wandered into the living room and just stood there, hands in his pockets and looking awkward. Three times he opened his mouth to speak, but said nothing, before turning back to her and facing her head on. "We've got to talk about it," he said finally.

"No," Katie shook her head, "we really don't." She meant it sincerely.

However, Oliver wasn't as easily convinced. "Of course we do. You've been avoiding me like bubotuber pus since the moment we left that party. You didn't even let me come to visit when you were in the hospital; and trust me, that crotchety old mediwitch was pretty damn excellent at denying me entrance."

It might not have been the most graceful way to ease into it, but she'd denied that chance earlier hadn't she? Social niceties had never been easy for either of them. Still, Katie didn't want to have to give words to what was easily ignored.

It wasn't that it was a lot, but it had felt like it at the time. There had been a big party at Barnaby Lockwood's flat, the manager of Puddlemere, for their progression to the league championship - their first in thirty years. She had gone, home in England as her season had ended earlier, along with Alicia, at Oliver's invitation - Angelina unable to get away, and the twins and Lee involved in things they didn't know about at the time. Oliver, who had been involved in an on again off again affair with Gwenog Jones, had been drunk both in celebration and depression because they had slipped a week previous into a decidedly 'off state' after some wizarding rag had broke the story of her shagging a player on the Irish national team. It was a small story on page six, after all the Voldemort propaganda, but it was still there; in those days, Oliver was a target, and one to be embarrassed.

Katie knew too that Oliver had never adjusted well to life in the spotlight - at least when it came to things not Quidditch, or when he wasn't using the media as a mouthpiece for his more, well, political agenda. He'd hated living his life in the public eye, especially with a fellow Quidditch player, and went completely cold anytime he was asked about anything except the game or the team - and berserk with ranting when he read an article about anything more personal than that. That debacle had just reinforced that, with more people focusing on his ended affair than the brilliant game they'd played to advance.

Needless to say, he'd allowed himself to get drunk with the private nature of the party. So had she, because she'd matched him drink for drink. At some point, they'd found themselves in an empty bedroom to try and have a private conversation, though it was all a bit of a blur.

Sometime after that, she'd found herself pressed against the bed, his body pressing against hers - his lips sliding over her mouth and down her neck as his hands grasped her wrists. It hadn't been either of their smartest moves, but neither had stopped it. If it hadn't been for her Dumbledore's Army coin that she always wore chained around her neck starting to glow, it would have gone further as well. Two Sober-up potions later, and studiously not looking at each other, they had grabbed Alicia, owled Ang, and were gone.

Katie was under no delusions about what that night meant. Absolutely nothing. They really didn't need to spell it out to each other.

It was harder though, because they were friends. It was even harder because much as she pretended otherwise, there was a point where she'd thought she wanted something like that. Not the drunken part, but that, them. Oh, she'd gotten over her schoolgirl crush about the first time Oliver had yelled at her on the pitch, but it wasn't like she didn't like the man he was. And he was. . . .Oliver, which about summed it up for her. She didn't moon after him, never had, but every so often there was time when she thought she might want a little more. That night made it harder to stop the line between them from blurring, which was never a good thing because it could muck a lot up.

"I know what it was," Katie said quietly, "you were upset and drunk, and I was drunk and stupid. Like I said, not our proudest moments, but it happened. And, in the end it was nothing. Not really. What more is there to say?"

The only hurt came from the fact that she'd made the mistake because it had been him standing there. He'd made the mistake because she had been a warm body, one who wasn't going to splash his personal life on page six, and somebody simply easy and convenient; a friend he didn't have too try as hard with.

Oliver cleared his throat. "I don't know, I thought I should apologize, grovel or something. That's usually what you do with a bird when you take advantage." He looked like he would castrate himself if he asked. If anything, his nobility actually made it worse.

"Nothing happened that night I didn't want to happen Oliver, we both made the mistake."

He didn't belabour the point, much to her relief. She might have hit him if he had.

Once again though, he cleared his throat, before beginning, "I. . . I wanted to make sure too that. . . that you weren't upset. That you weren't, uh, harbouring any feelings or. . . you know." It was a rare thing to see him so flustered. "I thought you might think that. . . "

In that moment though, Katie actually felt anger where she hadn't before. "Get over yourself Oliver," she snapped, as she took in his meaning. If there had been something easily reachable at hand she might have thrown it. "Seriously, take that arrogance, and shove it."

At least her anger seemed to satisfy him. "So we're okay then?"

"Like I implied when you walked in the door before this bloody stupid conversation, we're fine," Katie snapped. "We always have been. I was just in a bit of a mood when I was in the hospital, all right? Faced with possibly never playing Quidditch again, and my own mortality for a little while until they fixed me up. Again. I didn't want to be faced with the big hero Quidditch star who was the epitome of health."

A half truth, but it was the truth all the same - even if there was a little more to it.

Oliver couldn't describe the relief he felt at her words, given as they were in frustration. He could handle her annoyance, that came about more often than not, but he couldn't handle it if she were upset with him. They had maybe never been best mates, with her being so much younger, but they had been friends - and when she'd left Hogwarts they'd maybe become better friends too. Since the moment he'd sobered up he had worried about losing Katie in his life; much as he'd tried to tell himself it was about not wanting to fuck up the whole group dynamic, he knew it had been about a little bit more than that as well.

"You should grab your broom," he said finally, "and put on something that won't scandalize the neighbours. I've put our names down for time at the Westin stadium the Cannons play at, it's closest."

It seemed to surprise her that he'd done that, but she hadn't gotten used to the life yet, that stadium time would be her right for practice as a league player. Oliver hoped with everything she would last long enough in the league to appreciate that and the other perks - to enjoy the Quidditch. From the first day he'd been a reserve for Puddlemere, something which had lasted only months until the starting position, he'd loved the Quidditch. It was nothing really like school, it was so much more, everybody insane and intense with a high level of play, and thousands upon thousands of screaming fans egging them on.

"Sure you want to help the competition?" Katie asked, her hands on her hip as she shot him a look. Messy hair aside, sometimes it was way too easy to remember exactly how that night had happened, and Oliver found himself staring at her expression before he pushed it away.

Oliver grinned, he couldn't help himself, "Bell," he slipped into the Quidditch form of address, "we could practice for two years and you still wouldn't be able to give me a proper level of competition."

Though he'd thought earlier she might in her more extreme anger, this time he wasn't exactly surprised with a spoon she reached for made it's way flying towards his head.

He could only be grateful that there was no way she was hiding her wand in those tiny pyjamas, as he might have suffered much worse otherwise.

 

******************************

 

Quidditch began to consume her life from the moment she stepped onto the pitch for the first time.

It wasn't that Katie hadn't expected it, she had, but it was so very different. Playing for a nothing league in the middle of nowhere hadn't prepared her for it. Most of the players there had stopped caring, relegated there for years, and so many others there because they hadn't taken things as seriously as they could in the first place. Practises weren't the same, rules weren't the same - or at least as strictly followed, coaches weren't as involved, the after-game usually involved a large number of pints; the most important difference though, were the players. Here, they were heavily invested; here they cared so much more.

Katie had thought she was prepared for it, but she wasn't. She'd been used to more of a balance, life and Quidditch, and it was an adjustment. Still, she didn't regret playing for the League in the slightest.

There was more to it though that she hadn't been expecting. Every team she had ever played for, they'd had one thing in common - some degree of camaraderie. Every article she'd ever read, and every story she'd ever heard from Oliver and Alicia, had suggested for a professional team it would be the same. It only made sense too. How could you be an effective line of chasers if you didn't trust each other? At the very least didn't hate each other? You had to know each other, in and out, to be truly effective.

Since she'd walked into practice for the first time though, Katie had known immediately she was an outsider.

At first she'd chalked it up to being the newbie, having to work for acceptance. The only thing was though, there were so many others starting for the first time too, a result of the team needing the new blood. One other chaser and the seeker were brand new as well, one a free agent signing, the other out of tryouts as well. Still, there were no problems with them fitting in; the others went out of their way to make them feel included - to acclimate them to the team. It didn't change either, as time went on; by the end of the week Katie still had a niggling feeling that most of them didn't want her there.

Harriet Ashdown, the keeper, kept sending her side long looks every time she was on a broom. Dorian Jepson, the third chaser, seemed to avoid throwing her a pass except when scrimmage circumstance left him no other chose. The second beater, Gregory Bunson, was downright hostile. Gillian Arnsworthy, the other beater and captain, wasn't as bad - but she had to at least seem impartial, as team management and all.

Katie didn't understand it.

It wasn't that she was used to being liked. She hadn't exactly been the epitome of popularity in school. Still, she'd had her friends, and she had been happy. What she wasn't used to though was being actively disliked; she'd always done well enough at fading into the background when she wasn't playing Quidditch. It wasn't an easy sensation to get used to, especially when she had no idea what she had done to deserve it - because she hadn't even had the chance to do something to deserve the animosity. It wasn't like she threatened any of their positions on the team.

She knew, being absolute shite at confrontations, she might never figure it out either.

Letting the water run down over her head, Katie sighed. She was standing in the shower at the stadium after a particularly long and grueling practice, knowing there was only a scant eight hours before she had to be back at the stadium yet again for the twice a day practices they had the next day. Still, it was relaxing to stand there.

When she finally dragged herself away from the warmth of the water, there were only two players left in the locker room save herself. Harriet and the new seeker Nicholas Appleby were chatting as they finished packing up their gear after changing. Harriet ignored Katie, keeping her gaze focused on Nicholas.

"A few of us are heading to the Three Broomsticks for an hour or two," she said, "you should come." The pointed emphasis was not missed.

As she strode from the room, leaving the two of them behind, Katie could only stare after her with her mouth agape.

Nicholas looked apologetic, but only offered a shrugged, "Merlin, sorry Bell."

Clearing her throat, trying not to care overly much, Katie turned her attention to pulling out her clothes to change into. "I. . . .listen, you don't know what the bloody hell is going on there do you?"

He hesitated, then said, "I think it's something best sorted out between you all. I'm staying so fucking far away from team feuds. I've waited too damn long for this opportunity to ruin it with teammate drama."

The thing was, Katie felt the same way, but she wasn't exactly being given a choice.

It was tempting to try and badger him, because it was obvious because he had some sort of clue whereas she was entirely in the dark, but it really was best to avoid drama wherever possible. She wasn't being stopped from playing Quidditch. And, so what if it wasn't like school, and wasn't like her last team - they didn't have to actually be friends, so long as they learned to play together. Gillian and the coach would bloody well beat that into them if they had to, with the first game of the season not long away. That part did seem a bit of a pipe dream, but these were professional Quidditch players, they would make it happen.

 

******************************

 

Oliver's time had been consumed with putting together a team, his team, for Puddlemere.

It was nothing like school. At school, the team had been fairly close to being entirely at his discretion. McGonagall had left the majority of the decisions up to him, though she'd made some 'suggestions' from time to time that he'd learned not to ignore. Still, with a pro team it was worse. He didn't care so much about the players opinions, but the coach's word was law beyond his, and they had to answer to both the team owners and - Merlin help them - their fan base. Not even Gryffindors were as rabid when it came to caring about the team.

He had no problems with the hard decisions, but he did hate the politics with a vengeance.

There were all these people they were supposed to appease, and satisfy a variety of interests. With Oliver it came down to one thing and one thing alone - winning. That mean whoever was the best, he would take them, regardless of who they were. It had required beating Barnaby, the coach and manager, about the head with it - but eventually he had only sighed, agreed, and said he was going to owe him when he took the flack from the owners.

Quidditch was at the back of his mind though when he stood camped outside of Katie's door, his satchel slung over his shoulder, and banging at the door so that she would hear through whatever muffling charms she'd tossed up for the night.

"Merlin's baggy shorts," she was muttering as she flung the door open, "I am going to kick your arse six ways from Sunday if this isn't important."

"I need to borrow your sofa," he responded, pushing past her into the flat before she could say no.

"Please just go away," Katie moaned, "I have an early morning practice."

"I'll be dead silent," he promised, dropping his stuff down, "I'm just desperate for a place to stay. My building has a pixie infestation that it's apparently going to take them weeks to get sorted out. I just need a place to sleep. I swear, you won't even notice I'm here."

She shot him a look, "Right. Close to a hundred kilograms snoring in my living room and I'm just going to be able to ignore it. Why don't you go stay with Lee?"

"Because, as much as I like him, and much as I like Alicia, I don't fancy seeing either of them in the buff. Well, maybe Alicia," he grinned as Katie's eyes narrowed, "but really, the two of them are at one or the others place constantly, usually shagging - or being disgustingly in love when they're not."

"They say they're just fooling around."

"Right," Oliver snorted, "and I'm a purple winged snorkshack." He was gratified to see the grin on her face.

"Why not crash with Angelina? Her place is about twice the size of mine."

That was a laugh. He didn't quite understand Angelina's animosity towards him, but it was there, at least part of the time. "Right. Also twice as likely that we'll kill each other, not the best trade off. Or rather, that she'll kill me."

Katie seemed to have run out of people to suggest. They'd all realized George wasn't exactly an option. "Surely one of your teammates. . . "

"I'm the one putting them through their paces. They hate me at the moment."

He was fairly sure he heard her muttering something under her breath about how they all hated him half the time, but chose to ignore it.

In truth he probably could have gone to anybody else, but he hadn't really wanted to. It was true he wasn't exactly close chums with most of his teammates; there was the same issue that there had been in Hogwarts, that they were tending to view him as a bit of a controlling arse. The long and the short of it was too that he didn't like half of them; he liked what they could do on the pitch, and that was it. Merlin, he'd been part of orchestrating a trade for Marcus bloody Flint, which was making for a fun beginning. There was Lee, there was Alicia, there was Angelina - but the thing was Katie wasn't an option of last resort. He'd actually enjoy the company he'd have to put up with a little more.

And he'd enjoy the view a bit better too.

Oliver could tell the moment Katie resigned herself to his presence. It was a bit manipulative of him, because she really had never been able to say no to him, Merlin knew why. He had no delusions, he knew he wasn't exactly charming. Still, unlike the others, she'd never told him to take his suggestions or his wants and shove them up his arse.

"Fine," she said, yawning widely and waving her wand. Sheets, a blanket, and a pillow came flying out of various closets and zoomed towards the bed. "You better be bloody unobtrusive."

Oliver accepted the gesture gratefully, and tried not to gloat his satisfaction. He'd almost got into a yelling match with the man who let his flat to him over this infestation which really wasn't the man's fault. He tossed the belongings he'd shrunk and packed with him into the corner, and stood and watched as the sheets arranged themselves on the sofa. It would be nice being here too, because Katie had always been an excellent Quidditch sounding board.

"Do you need anything else?" She yawned the question, "If not, I'm going back to bed. I want to get up to toss a few extra quaffles around in the morning before everybody else gets there."

"I can remember a time at Hogwarts when I hate to bloody well beat you all around the head to do extra practice," Oliver remarked dryly.

"Oh shove off you wanker. You were just psychotic back then, and well, now too I suppose. I've just. . . I want to make sure I'm in top shape. I'm having enough problems on the team as it is."

Oliver didn't pick up on the hitch in her voice, or the change in her tone, so his question was more absent minded as he looked around in his bag for clean shorts, "Not making friends then Bell?"

She shook her head, "Well, no. Play is going well enough I suppose, but the rest. . . I just don't get it Oliver. It's not even a rookie thing. I'm not going to pretend I have a sparkling personality, but," she smiled, "I mean, I'm not you, they should at least find me tolerable."

Oliver thought back to his own first year playing, but couldn't remember any such problems. Maybe he'd just been lucky on Puddlemere, with an experienced coach who wouldn't tolerate any drama. "Maybe they're just used to a different standard of play?" He asked, his mind not really on the problem, frowning when he realized that he'd forgotten to pack more than one pair of clean socks.

When he looked up, there was a stricken expression on Katie's face. "Well," she said, clearing her throat, obviously upset, "I guess that clears up the question of what quality of player you think I am then."

"No, I didn't mean. . . ."

"Please, forget it," she interrupted him firmly, turning from him abruptly and heading back towards her room after slamming the front door shut as she spoke half under her breath. "Merlin, you probably should just go stay with Alicia - she's at least a bona fide Quidditch player after all, not just a pretender."

Oliver wanted to go after her, but knew he would just make things worse. He wasn't good at these sorts of things. It wasn't that he thought she was substandard, he didn't. He had maybe just thought for a minute that she wasn't up to speed yet, in so demanding a league. Nobody could do that, not within a week or two of practice, no matter how hard they worked on their own against invisible opponents. To his mind there was no other reason for animosity on the team, the Quidditch itself was it.

She wasn't like some, where talent flowed as naturally as breathing. But she had that intangible quality that made her better for it. He would take her before most of the others he'd played with over the years.

If he was honest in the details, Katie wasn't captain material, never had been. It wasn't talent though, it was personality. He had recommended Johnson take over for him without reservation, in spite of what relationship they had - she had that other quality. Katie was too. . . nice, too reserved, not fierce enough. It wasn't that she didn't have a backbone, but she didn't use it often enough. She was fine when she was with her group of friends, she gave as good as she got, but unless she had a broom between her legs and a quaffle in her hands she tended to fade into the background otherwise.

It had nothing to do with being a player though.

Sighing, knowing this whole habitation arrangement was going to be miserable if he didn't try, Oliver strode down the hallway towards her room.

"Open up," he said, rapping at the door. The cold silence that greeted him made him pound all the harder. Finally he could almost hear the resigned sigh before she opened the door.

There were no tears cascading down her cheeks, she had never been the type, but he had always been immune to that regardless. What he wasn't immune to was the hurt look that he had placed there, though now it was mixed with indignation.

"You're a fucking awesome player," he said bluntly. "That's not going to be noticed overnight. It wasn't the first go around either, remember?"

Oliver was maybe trying to make her a little more disposed towards forgiving him for the remark he'd made before. The first time around, she'd been the only first year trying out for the house team, urged on by her newly found best friends in Alicia and Angelina. She'd been a knobby kneed little skinny thing that didn't look like she had enough substance to throw the quaffle ten metres let alone across the pitch. Charlie Weasley had still been the captain then, and he'd practically - though kindly - laughed her off the pitch. Neither of the other two girls had made the team that year either.

But what Weasley hadn't seen, he'd seen. He'd seen the potential there.

They'd been his starting trio of chasers his first year as captain.

"I saw you," he said quietly. "I saw you then, and I see you now. You've always been great Katie, you've just never been good at seeing that yourself."

Oliver had meant it as a compliment, a way to make her feel better, but somehow as he said the words he found himself staring directly into her eyes. As her expression started to soften and her lips curved upwards, something inside him flipped, and he couldn't exactly explain the sensation. There was the odd desire to trace the skin of her cheek with his hand, and cover her mouth with his, and Oliver found himself leaning forward slightly without even realizing it.

"Imagine that," Katie's words were slightly teasing when they came, but her expression had taken on a soft look he didn't quite understand, "Oliver Wood, the big fearsome Quidditch God, is just a big softie underneath."

Her words broke the moment, and he shifted himself back awkwardly, clearing his throat. "Well, I suppose. Just don't you bloody well dare let that get around."

Grinning, she shook her head, "I think that's a topic for the stalls in the ladies loo, doesn't you?"

"Oh shut it Bell," it was easier to completely ignore the odd urge that had came over him when they slipped back into bantering. Even that first time, drunk and stupid, he'd never felt that same tender pull - or at least not enough that he could remember. Ruffling her hair, know it would annoy her beyond words, he turned and headed back towards her lumpy sofa.

 

******************************

 

"Merlin. . . fucking. . . Christ. . . shorts. . . "

Oliver was awakened from sleep by a rush of curses being thrown about the flat. Prying open his eyes, and trying to ignore the fact his back felt like he'd slept on his bloody broom, he found Katie pacing around the flat with her head stuck into the Daily Prophet. She ignored him as he straightened, and her distress was practically palpable from across the room. Obviously she was one of the many who had the paper owled in for daily delivery. He'd done that once, before he realized he had no fucking desire to read about either Voldemort's agenda back last year, or about gossip and trash then and now. The Quibbler might be half nonsense, but at least he wasn't going to find his face splashed across it while his ex-lover shagged one of the stars of the Quidditch world.

It had taken a lot, but Oliver wasn't naïve anymore. It surprised himself how much he had been about that sort of thing.

His attention was drawn away from his own past by Katie pacing over to him and throwing the paper down on his lap. He was shocked to see her own face staring back up at him. He didn't even known when it had been taken - it wasn't the Katie he saw very often. In the photo the paper used she was wearing a dress, and some of those fancy adornments birds took such solace in, even if she looked uncomfortable in them.

"My dad's birthday bash two years ago," she said through gritted teeth when he was about to ask, "just, read the article."

Her blanched face was enough to convince him it was serious enough to actually read. Keeping his attention half for her, Oliver none the less lowered his eyes to the Prophet.

Pureblooded Privilege

The title of the article jumped out at him before anything else. He didn't recognize the picture of the witch who'd written the piece.

It's not just a thing of the past.

It wasn't just a byproduct of Voldemort taking control - it's us.

It's here, just as it's always been here, and it's real - and apparently despite the hardships we've gone through as a magical society, it's not going away. Despite the terror, and the loss, when it comes right down to it we haven't changed.

We're still a society that puts purebloods first. When muggleborns take a position of prestige, it's considered a coup rather than commonplace. Purebloods still dominate every major office, be it Ministry or civilian. They dominate our national sports teams, teaching positions in the schools, every aspect of life. For every qualified muggleborn, there is a half qualified pureblood taking their place.

Those who were born muggle are still half at the fringes, having to fight harder for every step. Too, the way things stand, they will always be the easiest target.

They have suffered the most in the trials of the previous years, and gained nothing for it. Those who oppressed them, hurt them, or even so much as did nothing while it occurred, have not suffered - none but the most blatant offenders. Ministers Shacklebolt's amnesty for minor war crimes was received well by many, but one has to wonder if it was the right decision. Did it trivialize what had been done? Did it push down any formative change that would have been beneficial? Did it. . . .

Oliver stopped reading for a moment, looking back up at Katie, wondering what her issue was with the article. It was opinion based on minimal fact, but that was the Daily Prophet's's habit. It wasn't like it was exactly wrong either which was a welcome change. The tight and tortured expression on Katie's face didn't exactly match up.

"This is stuff you've always agreed with," he said, "at least you've always said you have. It's flowery and overwrought the writing, sure, but. . . "

Katie shook her head. She took the paper from him, flipping to the next page, and pointing directly at a few paragraphs near the middle. Oliver skimmed the stuff around it to realize the author had dragged others into the article, some unsuspecting and some likely not, to cite personal examples and opinion. Still not exactly factual and unbiased journalism, but at least it wasn't the author rambling on for another page.

This author had the opportunity to sit down with Harriet Ashdown, star keeper for the Tutshill Tornadoes, a halfblood who found herself on the wrong side of the Ministry last year when she was one of the many Quidditch stars who staged protests against the treatment of muggleborn players. One of the few who came out of it without more dire consequences as well. She can well attest to the fact that things certainly haven't changed in the Quidditch world.

She's loathe to name names, but it's hard to keep silent when an injustice is being done.

"It's never going to change," she says, her hand fisting on the foam quaffle she holds in her hands. "Across the league, if you look at the rosters, it's such a high percentage pureblood, with halfblood making up most of the rest. There were so many that fled England, that didn't come back, and there were those that were harmed in a way that keeps them away from the sport - but that doesn't mean there is a complete dearth of qualified muggleborn players. It's like they've been shoved out even more."

"Pureblood players without a professional game to their name are starting. Players who are in less than peak physical condition are still getting on. This isn't even grandfathering in the old guard, this is new players as well. People who did nothing to oppose Voldemort - which is as good as supporting him to me, I'm not going to mince words - are here too play now."

"Merlin," Harriet continues, "we have one new chaser on our team who embodies. . . " she breaks off, squeezing that foam quaffle again, a haunted look in her eyes. This reporter wonders if it because she has almost said too much here for her team management's comfort, or because she has seen too much happen to her players, with her team, for her own comfort.

"Merlin on a cracker," Oliver cursed, whistling under his breath. This was biased journalism to the extremes, ignoring the risks and the things purebloods did, most halfbloods did - their own losses. That wasn't the most upsetting part though. Anybody with access to a Quidditch roster, which was nearly everybody in Britain, could read between those very wide lines and figure out which chaser was being talked about. The article didn't even require that however; Katie's picture graced the photo, and the reporter named her in a subsequent paragraph ruminating on the interview with Harriet.

The liable they'd painted Katie with was heavy.

When he looked back up at her though, she didn't look like she was ready to tear the Prophet limb from limb like he would be - and had been in the past. Instead, she looked upset and shaken - not angry.

"I'm not sure," she said finally, her voice quiet, "if I'm more upset because I'm going to become even more so persona non grata on the team - and to complete strangers on the street now, or because it's true."

"Merlin's fucking shorts Bell, it's the Prophet.," Oliver snapped, annoyed that she was taking half of what they said seriously, "who would sell their bloody soul for a 'story', and I use the term loosely, that sells. Anything implied about you is complete bollocks, and you know it."

When it came right down to it, Katie didn't really know any such thing. None of it was a lie. If it was, she could have taken solace in righteous indignation. Was she pureblooded? Yes. Was she a scrub who had gotten a chance to start without working her way up? Certainly. Had she done anything public, anything vocal, to oppose Voldemort? No. Was she playing in spite of a bum left leg, and shooting pains on her left side? Of course. She was getting the opportunity to be a Quidditch player on the back of muggleborns misfortunes too.

It would be easy for Oliver to get upset, if anybody ever tried that tack with him - because it just wasn't true. He was pureblooded, but nobody every paid attention to that with him. Not just because his family was middle class, but because he was. . . .him. In school, he'd never been accused of that sort of favouritism. Last year, he'd been even more vocal than Harriet, earning his name on a black list at the sham Ministry - the reason the paper had always wanted to embarrass him so heavily. He had been a large visible force at that Battle at Hogwarts, and a photographer for one of the lesser wizarding rags had caught a photo of him lifting Colin Creavy's lifeless body, grief etched upon his face. When the photo had been run as a front page photo under a picture of Harry saving the day, it had solidified positive public opinion of him.

She couldn't take Oliver's indignation and use it, she didn't feel it. She couldn't; there was even more of an underlying guilt now she couldn't ignore. She hadn't done any of that.

Instead she nodded to appease him, feeling very tired and drained, and not because of the early morning. In less than an hour she was going to have to go to practice, go out in public, face up to all this - but she just wanted to go back to bed and pull the covers over her head and pretend like this article hadn't happened. She wasn't the only thing criticized in the story, Quidditch wasn't the only national entity, but it was the only thing central in her mind at the moment.

"Please tell me you're not going to let this get to you," Oliver said firmly, following her as she made her way into the kitchen.

"No way that's not going to happen," she replied, waving her wand and sending cereal and milk flying around to make herself breakfast.

"Katie. . . "

"Listen," she said, turning back to him, "in some way, I'm going to have to deal with this. There is going to be fallout of some kind. Not even you and your incredibly bloody thick skin and dense head could ignore it all."

Oliver seemed satisfied with her answer, but she knew in a way he was hearing what he wanted to hear. The article had pricked at a lot of problems she had as well, with the role she had played, and made her less satisfied with the one she had now. It wasn't like it was something she could discuss though - not with Oliver, Ang, Alicia, Lee, or George for that matter. They would simply be placating here, and maybe holding some of those some opinions underneath. She was where she was because of privilege, and she had done nothing to truly deserve where she had got.

Sighing, Katie waved her wand and sent the orange juice flying towards Oliver.

"Put it all aside," Oliver advised, snagging the juice from the air and pouring himself a glass, "make peace with the others as best you can and move past it. They're professional players, they're going to be about the game anyway. It's not going to sort the rest out, and what some people might think when they read the paper, but you'll get this team stuff sorted out. When it comes right down to it, nothing is more important than Quidditch, they will understand that."

His words were kindly meant, and useless all the same. Still, Katie paused in taking the orange juice from him, just looking at him for a moment - her attention for something besides the article itself.

She'd always rather assumed she knew where Oliver's priorities lay, but hearing it spelled out was a little bit different.

 

******************************

 

Katie walked into the locker room without shying away, though it wasn't easy.

At least she knew now, most of the reason why she'd faced hostility on the team from day one.

She hadn't bothered showing up for solo practice. In truth, she didn't really know what she was doing showing up at the moment, but it seemed like hiding and cowardice to try and duck out, and detrimental to her career as well. In the end it might all amount to nothing, but Katie didn't really think so. Harriet wasn't the only one on the team with that opinion, and she wasn't the only one in Britain with all those concerns. Something would come from all of this, and on the very small scale likely affecting her as well.

When she got to the stadium though, Harriet was the only one in the locker room. She turned her head to see Katie, but ignored her, turning back towards the task of cleaning out her locker.

"You quit?" Katie asked, shocked, the words coming out without her thinking about them.

"No," Harriet laughed bitterly, "oddly enough, I was sacked. Apparently team management doesn't take kindly to players having opinions." More than likely it was that management didn't take kindly to players badmouthing one of their own, and questioning the running of the team in public, but she was fairly sure that Harriet had taken that into account before she had opened her mouth. Apparently being able to publicly vent, however, had trumped any desire she'd had to be on the team. There were clauses in their contract that allowed them to be sacked for indiscretions in public.

Katie didn't say anything, hesitating before making her way over to her own locker.

As the metal clanged open, Harriet shot her a look, "Practise is cancelled. There's a team meeting this afternoon."

Something that would have been helpful to know before she showed up to face the very uncomfortable nature of the moment. Katie turned to go, but hesitated, turning back to face Harriet.

"I don't understand," she said finally, awkwardly, "not really. Where this all is coming from."

"You wouldn't," Harriet replied shortly.

"No, I get it. The problem with pureblood preferential treatment, I get that. I really do. But listen, I didn't get here because of my blood. I didn't. And, I've never done anything to any of you, or anybody else." As defenses went, it was weak, but Katie didn't know how to say what she was trying to express.

Harriet didn't say anything as she finished tossing her gear into the bag. The silence between them was filled with tension. Still, Katie couldn't entirely leave. She wanted to talk to Harriet, to try and understand, if this was going to be her only chance.

Finally, Harriet finished packing, tossing her sack over her shoulder. Turning to face Katie, she paused - and simply stared for a moment.

"Listen," she said quietly, "I'm sure you're just a lovely gal Bell," there was a quiet sarcasm in her tone, "but I don't give a hippogryff's arse. You're from the pureblooded elite - I've heard of your family, I've been to enough high up there parties as a successful Quidditch player. You're here despite the fact you're injured - I watch you limp around on that leg, no matter how hard you try to hide it. I don't care how well you can throw the quaffle, you are taking the place of other highly qualified individuals who don't have that limitation. You might not have called in a favour - but you think that doesn't play in the back of their minds? Who you are? What you might gain the team because of who you're related to, not how you can play?"

There was so much inherently wrong in Harriet's assumptions, so much that she didn't know about Katie and about the situation in the slightest Still, she only stood there and listened as the other woman went on.

"Where were you last year anyway then? When the rest of us were staging protests - putting ourselves on the line? Your mate Wood, he might be as pureblooded as the driven snow, but he was there in the trenches. He fought tooth and nail and lied through his teeth to keep his muggleborn teammates safe. I can respect that. What I can't respect are people who stayed out of the way, who let it all happen, who let people get hurt and killed - who could have been part of the solution. You, who stayed safe in northern Scotland, while Kerry was shipped off to Azkaban and basically lost herself there, and Gerard was killed when so-called 'aurors' visited his family." Katie recognized the names of two of the Tornadoes players who had come before her - muggleborns who hadn't returned this year.

Underneath the strength of Harriet's scorn, Katie nearly wilted. She wasn't used to facing animosity like this, not aimed directly at her. In her leg she could feel the ever persistent shoot of pain, and she clenched her hand against succumbing to it - with every word from Harriet she could feel it more. She wanted to shy back, but the need to defend herself was innate.

"Do you know how I hurt my leg?" Katie asked quietly. "It's not like I just tripped over a broom."

Harriet's voice when it came this time was more tired and defeated, "I don't care, because when it comes right down to it, what matters is you're here - and they're not, when they should be."

There was no glance spared for Katie as Harriet walked quickly past, face averted to hide the emotion that was there. She wanted to reach out to the other woman, to try and stop her, but she held her hand back. That was the crux of the matter, no matter what else it was all wrapped up in. Harriet's teammates and friends were gone, and not coming back, and Katie had become the symbolic scapegoat.

It was hard to take too, because somewhere in all of it, there was a little truth to the rest of it as well.

 

******************************

 

The following days didn't go entirely all that much better.

The coaching staff and captain pulled her into a private meeting. After a few minutes of telling her how much they supported her, and how Harriet had been completely out of line, they started not so subtly asking if they had anything that they were going to have to deal with in terms of media fallout if somebody started looking - a Death Eater lover, a muggleborn she'd just happened to torture, whatever. Just in case. Katie had just sat there staring at them with mouth agape, sounding inane when she finally made her denials, not quite able to believe she was even being asked such questions from the very vague accusations that had mostly been about Quidditch. Was this what others would assume when they read the article? When they paid attention to her as that pureblood chaser? She couldn't quite countenance the thought.

Katie thought about mentioning her involvement in the battle at Hogwarts, but it seemed like a weak defense - something overly defensive because she felt she had something to hide.

Relations on the team didn't greatly improve with Harriet's departure. Instead, all the holdovers tended to look at her like she was the devil incarnate, blaming her for the loss of another teammate in addition to their other reservations. It wasn't like she'd asked for Harriet to be sacked from the team, but it didn't exactly matter. Somehow, despite the fact that they'd started play for the season, and were winning - even the other new recruits were looking at her askance.

She might have stopped, gone to play for another team, but the thing was - if she left the Tornadoes like this there was never going to be 'another' team.

"Stop looking like somebody kicked your kneazle," Angelina said, sitting down across her, handing over a glass. "Nobody's going to shag you if you don't fucking smile every once in awhile." Her face was schooled into seriousness despite the jest.

Katie made a face. "I'm sorry I'm not happy go lucky. Life just happens to be shite at the moment."

They were sitting at a booth at the Leaky, sipping at pints. It was late at night, not long before closing, but Angelina had just come off shift - and Katie had no practice the next morning. The other woman smelled suspiciously of a hint of bubotuber pus despite her hair being wet from a recent shower, and Katie had decided just not to ask.

"Just as well," Angelina shrugged, "means at least you won't be shagging the prat taking up valuable space in your flat."

"Seriously. What is your problem with Oliver? He's a perfectly nice bloke. Who I am not shagging, but still. You act like it's. . . I don't know, Draco Malfoy that's staying with me."

Two weeks since the pixie infestation had hit his flat building, and Oliver was still staying with her - though only an incompetent building manager couldn't have managed to dispel them over that period of time. Katie didn't exactly know what the appeal was - it wasn't like she cooked for him, or cleaned for him, and she made him chip in the requisite knuts when she bothered to go to the market. Despite both their best efforts at transfiguration as well, her couch remained lumpy and uncomfortable.

But still, he was there.

Angelina, as she did every time the subject came up, simply shrugged and moved on. "Is it really that bad?"

"Well, he couldn't hit the toilet in the bloody loo to save his life - I'm considering painting a target in there. And he's grumpier than I am in the morning, which is saying something. And. . . ."

Angelina cut her off, "With Quidditch, you bint, not Oliver."

In truth, Katie had known exactly what she was talking about, but had been ignoring it just for a moment. She'd thought about it ad nauseum, she wasn't sure she wanted to talk about it the same.

"I love the Quidditch," she said finally, "but the off the field. . . it has become that bad. Merlin, with the way things are going there, I half expect people on the street to start hexing me as I walk by."

"You're not that famous," Angelina replied bluntly.

Katie had no delusions, she knew that was true. She was a second rate player who had got a chance due to circumstance, and was hardly a well known name across the league if for no other reason than she had played in so few games. Still, that article had caused a splash in the wizarding world, half tripe though it was - and Quidditch was. . . .Quidditch. There were the completely nutters people who were obsessed, and could name every player, every stat. They probably knew her bloody home address, and how much she weighed at birth.

"However," the other woman was continuing, "things are going to hell."

As Katie raised her eyebrows, Angelina shrugged. "The article became the spark some of those extremist groups needed. You knew what it was like those first few weeks after Voldemort was defeated, after the euphoria had passed. Those that had suffered wanted a scapegoat. Then Minister Shacklebolt dismissed sentencing for minor 'war crimes' two months ago, and it got worse. It's going back to most purebloods being blamed for everything, guilty or not. The extreme sort basically want a complete reverse in power rather than anything regarding equality."

"Anything specific?" Katie asked.

"Of course. Not that I can talk about though."

Katie snorted, "Right. Like you usually worry about Ministry confidentiality with us."

Angelina smiled slightly, "Well, I worry in the middle of a bloody pub. Later, Bell, later."

Already, she was expecting to be regaled with stories about atrocities against purebloods. Back in the day she had been privy to the same stories about muggleborns. While she enjoyed Angelina's stories as an auror, living vicariously through that adrenaline rush, those she had no desire to hear. Instead, she'd sat and listened through floo calls, and read countless owls because Angelina had been the one who needed to talk about it and find an outlet.

"I can't wait until I'm full fledged," the other woman said, popping a pretzel in her mouth, "this subservience is killing me. Yes sir, no ma'am, thank you you prat of a team leader for treating me like I'm a bloody idiot just because I'm a trainee."

Katie couldn't help but laugh, "You do realize they're not going to make you the head of magical law enforcement the second you start getting called 'Auror Johnson', right?" Still she knew what the other woman meant; Angelina had always had the metaphorical balls to back up her decisions and actions, now she just needed the final credentials.

"Within two years at the minimum though," Angelina dead-panned in jest. Finally letting herself smile, she added, "Christ Merlin, but I'm busy though. Gawain Robards has basically outlawed non-essential holidays through Christmas - and not just for the trainees. It's pretty much show up for work or be sacked. Whoever thought defeating He-Who. . . Voldemort was going to clean up the wizarding world entirely was dreaming - it's almost worse now, just not people having the 'Death Eater' title."

Another person might have been complaining, but Angelina almost seemed to glow with the pressure and the time commitment. Once upon a time Katie hadn't understood it, though she approved it now, her decision to join the aurors when she left school. She knew the background, the fact her father had been one before her and died in the first war, but it had seemed the antithesis of Angelina - except for the aggressive part. It made sense, it fit now when she saw it, but it hadn't so much in theory. Besides, the other woman had got a multitude of offers from professional Quidditch teams, and even if you hadn't been planning on making a career of it initially those were incredibly hard to turn down. It was hard not to be jealous, but Katie liked to tell herself that being the underdog led to a much more satisfying end.

That wasn't always easy to believe, but the jealousy was largely a non-factor. She had always been good at that sort of separation.

Still, in comparison to Angelina and to a different extent Alicia, Katie on some level did always feel like. . . well, something less, she supposed. Merlin knew they'd made friends in the first place when the girls had come across some obnoxious Slytherin making mock, and basically appointed themselves her saviour. Beyond that though, she was never as attractive as them, never as put together as them, never as assertive and confident as them - never as comfortable in her own skin. It was enough to give a girl a complex. Even more so of one if she hadn't truly been able to count them as her closest friends.

"Why can't everything just be easy?" Katie sighed, rolling her mug around in her hands, "Why can't it be like. . . " her voice trailed off, unable to think of a comparison. There never really had been an 'easy'.

Angelina raised her eyebrows. "You had been going to say like school, weren't you?"

"Until I remembered Umbridge, being nearly killed by the curse necklace, a dead headmaster. . . you know, that and all the other very fun things that constituted the 'easy' of Hogwarts. Okay, fine, there has never been an 'easy'. I thought that it would be. . . different somehow though; after school, then after Voldemort. Not just as a society, for. . . well, me." Katie blushed, "Aaaand, that's close to the most selfish statement that ever left my mouth.

Angelina laughed, reaching across and patting her hand, "Listen Katie, I get it. We all thought the same on some level. Besides, you need a turn of luck. If it wasn't for visiting you I would have never even seen the inside of St. Mungo's as much as I have. Try and stay out of there, if you don't mind, I bloody well hate that place."

They left not long after that, downing their pints in rapid succession, both too tired to be too much more sociable.

Standing outside the Leaky, having made their way back to the wizarding side, whatever Katie had been about to say in farewell and regarding plans for the future was cut off by the other woman's owl Lazarus flapping up to them and standing insistently at Angelina's feet. "Merlin," she said, a bit of weariness in her voice as she bent down to pick up the paper in it's beak, "if this them needing me for another raid I'm going to go spare. I haven't been home in two days."

She unfolded the paper while Katie watched, shivering against the cold. In an instant she watched a myriad of emotions cross Angelina's face.

Whatever she'd been owled about had nothing to do with work.

"Angelina, what. . . " she began, but already the other woman was shaking her head, folding the note in efficient like fashion down to the tiniest square.

"I have to go," Angelina said, distracted already from Katie, "I'll be gone for. . . God, I don't know. Good luck with. . . you know, Quidditch, and the rest."

Before Katie could inquire further, to demand to know where she was going, Angelina was already apparating away - leaving nothing behind with a loud 'crack'. Katie could only stare at the empty spot in front of her in shock. She didn't know what would be enough to get the other woman to leave so abruptly, without explanation - and more importantly what would get her to go, implying out of town, when she'd just been on about how it was impossible to take a vacation from the magical law department these days. For somebody who loved their job, who was practically married to their job, leaving it so easily behind was hard to believe.

When the door opened behind her though, with pub goers leaving at closing time, Katie was startled into awareness. Making her own apparition she ended up in front of her flat building, light headed, and all around worried and confused.

The sight that greeted her though when she unlocked and entered her flat distracted her from everything else though.

Wall to wall destruction lined the inside of her flat - her home, the place she had worked so hard to make for herself after cutting ties with her family. Katie stood with her hand on the doorknob, shocked. Things had been tossed and sacked, her sofa was never going to recover without some clever magic, and her personal belongings littered the floor.

What bothered her most was the graffiti, hateful words covering her walls.

Katie was half shaking as she walked into the flat, checking every room for the damage, thinking only too late she maybe should have checked first to see if the vandals were still there. Still, she found nobody, only destruction as she plodded through the rooms - though most had been limited to her bedroom and the living room.

Seeing more epithets scribbled on the walls of the latter - it became too much.

Not sure what to feel, what to think, numbed against all emotion - Katie collapsed on the nearly destroyed sofa, simply staring.

 

******************************

 

For all he had told Katie weeks back that people would learn to prioritize, Oliver was learning exactly how much it wasn't the case.

It was different, in that he was having no personal problems. There were no articles suggesting he got his position by favouritism, or that he'd indirectly supported dark wizards. The ever annoying press continued to praise him and his play, and kept trying to ask personal questions that he had absolutely inclination to ever answer. Merlin knew what they would come up with if they knew he was staying at Katie's place, though it would likely be more accusations than questions. There was a reason he was keeping it quiet. After Gwenog and his stupidity, after the rest, Oliver had no inclination to go through that sort of thing again.

No, the problem wasn't with him personally, but it was still with Quidditch.

Katie wasn't the only one facing problems.

"I won't play with him," his seeker Norman Gupcloud had said bluntly, standing in front of his desk that morning.

"Who?" Oliver had been absent-minded, distracted with play making.

"Flint."

That had got his attention. Merlin knew he hadn't liked Flint, still didn't all that much, but the bastard was the best chaser that had been available to fill Puddlemere's empty spot. That went before any personal preferences. The bastard had done some absolute shit in the past, but he'd moved past it, and he was a good team player even if he wasn't a nice one.

As Norman had ranted on, he had finally begun to realize exactly how many others didn't exactly agree with his point of view. This wasn't the first member of the team that had come to him, though most of them had sidestepped around the issue a bit more, and with less profanity.

It was what had led to the current moment, him waiting in the locker room to talk to Marcus Flint.

When the other man came out of the showers he had only a towel wrapped around his waist. His gaze flickered to Oliver, but he didn't waste time with pleasantries and inane conversation - or a little arse kissing like some of the other members of the team. He didn't waste any time on modesty either, letting the towel drop before he slipped into his shorts and trousers while Oliver averted his eyes.

"Is this the part where you tell me I'm off the team?" He asked, pulling an undershirt over his head before turning to face Oliver.

Flint never made a move to hide the black form that graced his forearm. Oliver found his attention shifting back to the dark mark despite his best efforts.

He ran a hand over his face, exhausted with the drama, wishing it could all be about Quidditch again. With everything that had gone on the season before, it was all he wanted. For it to be that straightforward again. He didn't want to be an activist anymore, he didn't want to have to worry about bloodlines, he just wanted them all to play Quidditch. He didn't want to have to go to bat for somebody like Flint, who half the time he wasn't even sure deserved the chance he was getting. It would have been easier if Marcus was the type of player who couldn't tell his broom from his pecker, and it would have been easier still if Flint wasn't so bloody human in the end too.

"Why couldn't you have had a backbone?" Oliver said wearily.

"Fuck off," Marcus shot back the words, turning his back and reaching for his jumper. "If sticking around means lectures from a self-righteous swot you can take the position and shove it up your arse."

"You couldn't just make this easier, could you Flint?"

Marcus slammed his locker shut. "Listen, what the fuck do you want? I'm not going to grovel. I'm not going to lie. Take me as I fucking am, or kick me off the team."

If the other man was as horrible as he came off as, he never would have been allowed on the team in the first place. No skill or talent could make up for everything. However, unlike some Oliver knew the truth. He knew Marcus' reasons for the past, and he knew what he had and had not done. The other man would have never lowered himself to admitting anything worthy of understanding except for the simple fact that they shared one thing in common - they both wanted to play Quidditch bad enough to do anything for it.

His reasons for taking the dark mark weren't admirable, but they were understandable. Even if having somebody perceived as a 'Death Eater' was never going to fly well regardless.

"We're not sacking you," Oliver said finally, "though you probably violate every bloody morals cause known to man. Not yet anyway. You know the others hate you though, don't you?"

Marcus' large teeth flashed, "They need to take a number. Don't remember you being particularly fond of me either, Wood."

A reluctant smile tugged up the corners of Oliver's mouth. "What? I always perceived us as besties."

Marcus snorted, turning back towards his locker and pulling out his cloak for the travel home before slamming it shut - waving his wand to ward off his gear behind him. "You know," Oliver said, his tone conversational as the other man prepared to leave, "another man would thank me for sticking up for him when everybody wants his arse on a platter."

"I'm not other men," Marcus shrugged, and left it at that. "

In truth Oliver had known better to expect any sort of gratitude from Marcus Flint; most of the time he didn't even expect civility.

It was a surprise then when the other man motioned a shoulder towards the door. "I'm having a drink at the pub."

"Well good for you. If that was a thoughtful invitation," Oliver said, bemused, "you're horrible at them."

"Oh go fuck yourself with your broom handle. I just thought it might be nice to see the great and honourable Oliver Wood come down off his high horse and get pissed for once."

As far as invitations went, it left a lot to be desired. Besides, Oliver felt the tug of the flat calling him, as he'd taken to spending his nights in with Katie more often than indulging the alcohol habit of the Quidditch set - but she was off with Angelina being all female, and he didn't much enjoy the thought of an empty flat to go back too. Besides, realizing that tendency as well made him feel very odd as he sounded way too bloody domestic with a friend whose free couch he was simply taking advantage of.

"Just keep in mind if you poison me there's nobody standing between you and being out on your arse," he said finally, his own version of acceptance, surprising himself.

They ended up at the Five Sickels pub, an out of the way establishment that was barely frequented by anybody save wizened old crones who likely had nothing waiting at home except a nice warm bottle of firewhiskey. It had been Oliver's choice.

Flint looked around with sardonic amusement, shrugging out of his cloak as they grabbed stools at the bar, "Not much chance of you being seen with me here, now is there? Don't have to tarnish your precious reputation."

As he motioned for the bartender Oliver didn't bother to respond, because maybe there was a little truth in the accusation. He didn't much care about popularity, but he cared about the headache of the press. If he could avoid it, he would. Besides, it wasn't like he wasn't going to take heat for keeping Marcus on the team regardless, he would just prefer to deal with it in the public arena - where they weren't going to be made out as the bestest of friends.

"Can you blame me?" He said though after he'd motioned for shots of firewhiskey.

Marcus ignored him, snagging one of the glasses the bartender levitated over. It wasn't like the other man was exactly having his feelings hurt by them showing up here. Like Oliver wasn't sure he even could stand Marcus, let alone like him, he was fairly sure Marcus felt the same about him. Yet there they were, drinking together, of their own free will.

"To Quidditch," Oliver said, holding up his glass.

Marcus rolled his eyes. "Fucking Gryffindors and your uplifting toasts," was all he said before shooting back the liquid, Oliver then following quickly behind.

They didn't talk much as the bartender kept the drinks coming. Neither was much for inane small talk, especially with each other. Once the alcohol started to soften the world, and soften Marcus in his eyes, Oliver found himself begin to talk more however.

"I honestly never thought you capable of giving a shit," he said, swirling the latest shot around in his glass.

"Don't confuse me with one of your namby pamby Gryffindor idealists," the other man shot back.

That was something Oliver would never do. Not for the any amount of firewhiskey in the world. Still, he could understand the protection of family, of friends. Sometimes there was no other way out, not if underneath you cared. He was lucky in that he'd been able to play the idealist; he'd never been faced with a hard choice when somebody he cared about was threatened. Marcus had taken the dark mark when the Death Eaters had threatened his younger brother, and spent as much time as he could making it mean nothing. He was never going to win wizard of the year, but there was something more there than Oliver had ever realized.

"It's still not fucking fair though," Oliver said, letting the firewhiskey burn his throat again, "that most of the time you're getting a free pass, and Katie's getting crucified. And she's a good person."

Marcus raised an eyebrow. "Bell? Fucking Merlin, you're still hanging around with that bird? Of course she's good. She's so fucking bland she would never have the balls to be anything but."

"Oi," Oliver was indignant, "I'll have you know that. . . "

Before he could even begin, Marcus was cutting him off. "Yes, whatever. I'm sure she's the greatest, and most virtuous, and most courageous thing since Merlin. Just please don't subject me to hearing about it. I just can't stand my women without a little bloody backbone."

Oliver didn't say anything else, his lips thinning in annoyance as he contemplated the bottle of firewhiskey the bartender had simply left them with. Sometimes it astounded him, how few people seemed to know Katie. So what if she wasn't brash like Johnson, or vulgar like Flint? That didn't mean she was spineless, it didn't mean she didn't have courage. It wasn't overt, but she had more determination in her little finger than most people he knew had in their entire being. She'd go down fighting for something and someone she believed in every single time, even if she was scared to do it. And well, when it came to the superficial she always had no problem busting his balls.

The problem was sometimes though, that other people didn't realize those qualities in her, because she didn't realize them herself.

Sighing, Oliver forgot for a moment who he was talking too. "I wish she'd. . . " he trailed off then, remembering. It felt traitorous to find fault anyway.

Marcus shrugged, "I always figured you and she'd shag at some point anyway. Merlin knew she always had a thing for your uptight arse. She'd probably spread her legs if you so much as waved and. . . " he held up a hand when he saw Oliver's expression, "fuck, I do not want that fight. Didn't realize it was like that between you and the bint."

He didn't realize until Marcus had backed off that he'd rose half out of his seat, his hand fisted and a threatening expression on his face. When Flint had started in on the vulgar insults, Oliver had saw red, though to be fair Marcus probably thought of it as making conversation. Almost sheepish, shaking his head, Oliver lowered himself back down on the stool. He wanted to correct Marcus, but it wasn't worth it. If he thought he and Katie were involved he'd mind his mouth at least a little, and Oliver wouldn't have to fight the urge to cause him physical damage.

It was odd, because he wasn't used to the protective surge he'd felt.

Instead of saying else, Oliver motioned for Marcus to pour them another round.

When Marcus reached to pour the bottle his sleeve slid up, revealing a glimpse of the forearm underneath. The bartender, who'd been scourgifying glasses beside them, froze at the sight. The expression of the formerly amiable man hardened, and he leaned on his hands against the bar. "We don't serve your kind in here," he said roughly, looking directly at Marcus.

They all tensed at the animosity that had sprung up. The few other patrons that graced the bar seemed to all turn and stare.

"It's not like that, mate," Oliver said quietly, trying to keep the altercation private.

The bartender didn't spare him a glance, his gaze for Marcus. "That mark on his arm says it's 'like that', mate."

"He. . . " Oliver's voice trailed off before it even began. Two other men, older to be sure but with perfectly serviceable wands, had begun to approach the bar. There was no real way to come to his defense, no way that words were going to satisfy anybody. Marcus for his part didn't seem all that perturbed. He casually finished his last shot, and then reached for his cloak, shrugging it around his shoulders. He offered no words to the bartender, or the other men and women.

"Don't come back," the man said bluntly, making no bones about the fact he'd reached for his wand. "I don't know what Minister Shacklebolt was thinking, letting most of you lot go free. You belong in Azkaban, though I wouldn't be exactly sad if you were found at the bottom of the bloody Thames."

Marcus still didn't seem to pay much attention still. He tossed his galleons down on the counter, nodding at Oliver before walking out of the bar.

It seemed wrong, it seemed like he should defend himself, but Oliver could respect the decision for him to walk away - even if he didn't know the other man's actual motivations. Still, acceptance seemed wrong. It was true that Marcus that had a little more to be blamed for than the very innocent purebloods that seemed to be facing much too similar opposition, but still. Not everybody was cut from the same cloth, and in any circumstance there were dangers in painting everybody with the same brush. Even those who bore the dark mark.

Still, for once in his life, though it went against the grain - Oliver said nothing, following Marcus' path out of the pub.

 

******************************

 

The knight bus had been his way home, apparition not the best idea despite the fact that the end of his and Marcus' night out had sobered him considerably.

By the time he was standing in front of Katie's flat, there weren't too many people gracing the streets of London. Normally he was in bed by this time, not wanting to be exhausted for whatever practice or game came the next day - maybe he was sometimes the uptight arse that he was accused of being. Finding it a novelty not to have other witches and wizards pushing by him, Oliver simply stood there for a moment in the biting air with a half smile across his face, before heading into the building.

When he got to the flat though, the door was locked, and the flick of his wand didn't work as it normally did.

"Bell," he said, knocking firmly on the door, "what the bloody hell?"

He was expecting to have to rouse her from sleep, but instead the door opened almost instantaneously. Not all the way though, just barely far enough for Katie to stick her head out. "Shh," she hissed, "don't wake up the neighbours. Merlin's knickers, Oliver."

Oliver would have retorted he wouldn't have had to knock if she hadn't locked him out, but the expression on her face caught him. She looked tired and drawn, and more than a little upset. Even he who tended to be perpetually blind to emotions was able to see that. "What happened?" He demanded instead of making a joke, "Did you and Johnson get into a fight?"

"No," she said quickly. "And nothing happened Oliver. I just. . . I need a night alone for once. Go crash on Lee's sofa, you can put up with Alicia moaning for one night."

Right, and if he bought that there was a river in Egypt she could sell him. Oliver went to push open the door, but felt opposition from Katie. "Just for a night," she said, passing a bag of his stuff through the small opening in the door.

Incredibly suspicious, he put his weight into pushing at the it, managing to widen it enough as Katie stumbled slightly back to get in. "You arse," she said furiously, "it's my flat and I told you to stay out."

Oliver's attention wasn't for her though, not directly. It was for the flat. It was obvious she had been cleaning - whatever charm she'd cast had dishes righting themselves and items flying about back into their rightful positions, but there was so much evidence there still. The sofa he'd been sleeping on was destroyed, though hopefully not beyond repair, but what was worst were the words. Insults were smeared against every wall. Something Oliver couldn't even pronounce was in red across the living room, 'bitch' and other derogatory terms splattered the kitchen, and in charmed words that hovered in the living room, 'pureblooded whore' hung in the air.

"Whoever they were, they were good," Katie said in a quiet voice, "I can't get that stuff cleaned off; standard cleaning charms don't seem to work."

Oliver didn't care about that. "Who was it?" He demanded, turning towards her.

She shot him a look, "Like I know. It's not like they left a calling card, Oliver."

As she waved her wand, repairing a vase that had been broken, her calm almost drove him spare. He didn't understand how she wasn't raging, how she wasn't scared, how she wasn't. . . something more than she was, this odd mask of defeated calm. He was churning inside. Whoever they were, whatever their purpose, they had been in her flat; her standard wards against intruders had done nothing. They had been in her home. If she had been here, if she hadn't been out. . . Merlin knew. The thought ate away at him.

"You need to floo the Ministry or send your patronus, so the hit wizards or aurors know what's going on," he said, more loudly then he intended.

"I sent an owl off to Angelina," Katie's voice was still overly calm, "though it came back unopened. She's off on. . . I don't know exactly. She'll deal with it when she gets back."

"Fucking Merlin, I know you two are mates, and I'll worship at Johnson's altar if you want - but she's not a full auror yet. And even if she was, you don't wait when you're attacked, when your place is destroyed. You get the fucking weight of the Ministry involved." He was slipping into vulgarity, which he didn't do all that often, but there was still fear eating away at him.

"I told you," Katie said, still paying more attention to the sofa than to him, "Angelina will help me when she gets back if she needs to. Besides, they didn't take anything. I'll get this all cleaned up within a week, even if I have to consult the national library to get the right spells. It's just a. . . prank." Her pale face belied her words, but she offered them without a quiver in her voice.

"A prank," he was still half yelling, "you call this a prank?"

"Yes Oliver," she turned towards him, "I do."

Before he realized what he was doing, his hands slid out to grasp her arms, and as they both looked down - startled, he let go. Clearing his throat he stepped back, his voice more calm despite the turbulent emotions. "You could have been here Katie. They could have hurt you too - literally this time. Don't you care that somebody got in here? Don't you care that they tried to destroy your stuff, wrote those horrible things?"

"Of course I care," Katie said, "but. . . it's not like I. . . this wasn't personal."

"How could it be more personal?" Oliver demanded, "Did you want them to etch 'pureblooded whore' into your forehead?" He watched her flinch at the words, but didn't apologize.

For a moment, Katie didn't say anything, sitting down on the sofa that had been shredded with what looked like a sectumsempra, or somebody a little too happy with a knife, it was hard to tell. Oliver didn't join her, standing in front instead. He watched as she rested her head in her hands, pushing her hair back before looking at him again. "I never thought the article would quite come to this," she said quietly, "it didn't say I killed any muggleborns - it just implied privilege and ambivalence. But yet. . . I know what this is from. Nobody hates me that much as a person, not enough at least for this."

"They might if they knew you," Oliver gave the quiet quip, kneeling down in front of her and resting his hands on hers.

Katie gave a ghost of a smile. "Funny."

What he didn't get though, was why that made any difference. He didn't get why she wasn't more upset, why she wasn't trying to hunt the bastards down - why she wasn't at least worried and scared. "Why?" He decided to just ask more directly, "I don't care who it was, you've got to take this seriously, Bell."

"I am," she said, "trust me, I am. But I. . . I can't blame them over this."

Oliver was incredulous at what was implied in her words. "You think you. . . what, deserved this?" He demanded of her, watching her twitch at his vehemence. "Is that what you're saying? What the bloody fuck sort of nonsense is that?"

"No," Katie said, then again more firmly, "no. I don't think that. I just, if I was a muggleborn and I read a truth like that. . . .if I'd been hurt, and my family and friends had been hurt, by privileged purebloods - I'd want to retaliate too. I can't place blame on that, not really."

He could only wonder if she was actually hearing the words out of her mouth, how ridiculous it all sounded. There was no excuse, no justification, nothing that would make this acceptable. "You're being stupid," he said bluntly.

Her eyes flared. "Excuse me?"

"You heard me. You are being completely stupid."

"How dare you. . . "

Oliver cut her off, "Listen Katie, at this point I don't even care if you were Voldemort incarnate. There is a right way and a wrong way to do things. This is not it. Terrorizing somebody is not the right way, I don't care who they are. If somebody did something wrong, they get punished - legally, and that's it." It always had been that black and white for him; even back then, he'd believed more in aurors going after Voldemort than a renegade Order and Harry Potter. Who decided what justice was otherwise? "But you have to stop being so bloody understanding. Are you buying into that shite then, that somehow just because you weren't. . . well, Harry Potter, you deserve some level of blame? Because of your family, it makes you bad by association?"

Katie looked steadily at him, "It's not all just shite Oliver."

Unable to sit still, unable to stay in front of her, Oliver got to his feet and paced around the living room in front of the sofa - not looking down at Katie. He couldn't comprehend it, that she was even buying into it on any level. Somewhere in the back of his mind too, was his conversation with Marcus. That traitorous criticism that she needed to stand up for herself more, needed to believe in herself more - when it came to something not Quidditch.

"Grow a backbone," he said, and felt like a heel when her face blanched, but he didn't take back the words.

"Go to hell," she said simply, getting up to walk past him - but Oliver reached out and held her arm, stopping her from going to hide in her room.

When the words came, they were brutally honest, not letting her shy away from the truth. "You've never been good at standing up for yourself," he said, letting her wrench away, but standing in front of her so she wouldn't dart around him. "You've never been good at being assertive when it comes to you, to the personal. Did you ever really understand why you were passed over for Quidditch captain - it wasn't just because the runner up was Harry bloody Potter, McGonagall respects seniority, it was because of that. The thing was too, you took that, you never even questioned it. And here you are now, believing that somehow that you deserve to be tortured emotionally because you weren't the saviour of the wizarding world. How can anybody who truly respects and believes in themselves possibly believe that?"

"I'm not talking about cursing me out, or learning to throw a punch," he continued, "I'm talking about not apologizing for who you are. I'm talking about not letting yourself get walked over, and buying into misplaced guilt. It's fucking illogical."

Katie's eyes flickered, and for a moment he thought she was going to hit him. He couldn't regret the words though, not entirely, because she couldn't go on thinking like that. That just because she wasn't. . . god, what, an auror? Because she hadn't started a subversive radio program, because she hadn't given public speeches, she was somehow more blame worthy. Even if she hadn't fought at Hogwarts, even if she hadn't been injured there, it wouldn't have made her any more deserving of censure. Even if she hadn't cut ties with her family entirely, it wouldn't have made her part of the problem either.

He just wanted her to tell the rest of the world to go to hell if they didn't believe that.

"You arrogant arse," she said quietly, her voice strained with anger, "how dare you presume to know what you're talking about."

"Tell me I'm wrong," he challenged. "Tell me that's not the way it is."

As he stood there, staring down at her, Katie had to back away, not wanting to deal with the intensity of his expression. She had her own emotions that were stringing her tight. Shame mixed in with anger, the latter taking precedence. The arrogance astounded her, that he would say things like that, that he would be as presumptuous as he was. He just assumed her knew her, knew what was right for her, knew everything; like he was so bloody perfect.

There was truth mixed into his words too, which wasn't easy.

It had never been easy though, being friends with the rest of them. They were older, they were confident, they were Quidditch at Hogwarts, and they had taken her under their wing. Even then she'd never felt like she'd measured up; the younger one, the quiet one, the one who'd had to be goaded into so much. And now, being grown up, the divide seemed to have widened. They had all known what to do when things had gone to hell, and they had made a difference - each in their own way. Lee with the wireless - George the same, and a million other things as well. Angelina and her work as an auror. Alicia and Oliver as Quidditch activists. What had she done in the end? One battle, where she hadn't even acquitted herself well. One act did not redeem doing nothing else.

It would be hard enough to compare to the general populace, where people had smuggled and hid muggleborns, and fought death eaters - half the time comparing herself to her friends was next to impossible.

None of that she said to Oliver though. There was no way to explain it.

"I'm simply talking about public perception," she said, trying to keep her voice even, "not what I blame myself for. You can see how I would be perceived as I am, at least by a few people - and I hope it's a very few people."

Oliver snorted, "Right, like you're the poster for pureblooded supremacy. You're this innocent looking girl half the time, who looks like she couldn't swat a fly - and smiles constantly without malice, without derision. It's ridiculous for you to be perceived as anything but what you are - a Gryffindor till the end, who stood up for what she believed in, more than a damn sight many people."

Katie continued on doggedly, "Still, without actions to back-up feelings. . . "

"There were actions, you bint. Why don't you do your own interview? Point to your leg, talk about what happened - it's a matter of public record if anybody cares to look into it further."

"No," on that, Katie was resolute. She wasn't going to try and toot her own horn, not for so very little, and not so publically.

Not playing media games was something Oliver should be able to understand anyway.

Oliver paced around, obviously frustrated. She normally tried to calm him when he got into a mood, when he started to rant, but right then she had no inclination. She couldn't forgive his arrogance, and his words. She couldn't get past his perception of her either. It made her feel all the worse too, about that night of their drunken indiscretion of sorts, about how really cheap it had been. How she had just been an available body; in his sober mind she wasn't an equal friend, she was simply somebody to be taken care of, and somebody with no backbone.

"I want to hit some sense into you," he said finally, "damn your eyes, being a bird."

Katie forced a half smile. "Don't let that stop you. I do know a few dirty tricks."

What was obvious though was that Oliver wasn't going to let it be turned into a joke, this conversation. "You're more than you believe," he said quietly, coming to stand in front of her, "you always have been Katie. I just wish you'd always see it, believe it, act it. It fucking kills me when you don't."

In that moment, Katie found herself staring up at his expression, unable to look away - a whole different set of emotions churning in her stomach. When he said things like that, she could almost see something else behind his eyes. When he said things like that, she could almost believe in a feeling that wasn't friendship. Most importantly too, when he looked at her like that, like he cared, she could almost feel him bending down to kiss her, to take her hand. This time though, the reminder that none of that was exactly the case was more close at hand, and it took her but a moment to clear her throat and step back slightly.

"If we work together we can probably manage to transfigure the sofa into it's non-damaged state," she said quietly, "at least for it to last a few hours until I can get somebody in to fix it."

It was obvious Oliver was uncomfortable with his last words, in that he now allowed himself to have his attention turned back to the practical. He nodded, as they both drew their wands. The rest, she would leave for the next day - the next week. It was mostly surface damage except for the epithets, which they'd tried to charm to be permanent.

"Might as well," he said, running a hand over his face in exhaustion, "I've got to be at the pitch in too few hours."

"And that comes first," Katie's tone was almost derisive.

Why, she didn't know. It wasn't like she wanted him to keep pestering her, it wasn't like she wanted them to keep having this conversation that made her feel about two feet tall. It wasn't like she wanted to explore whatever had hung between them when they locked eyes. She wanted to put aside the topic, she wanted to put aside what had happened. Somehow though, it annoyed her still that Oliver could so easily discard emotion and worries because he had Quidditch the next day.

"What. . . " he began, but she waved it off.

"Nothing."

Katie didn't even know how she could begin to explain.

 

******************************

 

The weeks passed, with Oliver still at Katie's flat. In truth, the pixies had been cleared out, but she didn't ask - and he didn't say anything. When it came right down to it though he was loathe to leave. He tried to tell himself it was just because of the vandalism on her place, that she should have somebody with her in case the idiots came back - though she'd rightly point out he knew just as much about defensive spells as he did, but in truth there was a little more to the motivation. He liked being around her, and had rarely got that chance with her avoidance of him, and even before it had been casual. They got on well, they understood each other, for all they might bicker.

Then again, since that night of the vandalism things had shifted slightly, and something wasn't quite as easy between them anymore.

Oliver knew he was right. He'd reported the vandalism to the hit wizards the next day, and Katie hadn't talked to him for nearly an entire day straight after, after only answering their questions tight lipped and evasively when they apparated over with him to check it out. Fortunately, they didn't need her cooperation to see what happened, and they had his account. At least somebody was going to be looking into it, and that was all that mattered. When Katie finally had spoke again it had been to fume about his arrogance, but what was he supposed to do? Just ignore the fact there were people out there who wished her ill?

He tried to tell himself he would have felt the same level of concern for any of his friends.

It continued to be the same. Katie got hassled, though she wouldn't admit it directly to him, but he'd heard her and Alicia over the floo. An errant comment here, a pointed look there, and disapproval she hadn't earned - but it was there. It wasn't just her teammates. Marcus who deserved it more than a little bit more, got the same. At least there was no violence, no more personal attacks. Not yet anyway. Every time Oliver got a question from the press about Marcus, or about pureblooded privilege - or about those who'd taken a role for the dark side during the war, he practically snarled. Still, he tried to keep a pleasant façade even as he ignored the questions. He'd learned his lesson about the media, and he'd learned that when it came to the personal - like this was now, it was best simply not to get involved, and to not get antagonistic.

Somehow, the Quidditch in all this had become secondary.

Normally he'd cheer with every loss for another team, and despair a win that didn't help Puddlemere in the standings - but he couldn't help but be satisfied with the winning the Tornadoes were doing. It wasn't going to solve everything for Katie, but it was something. Every game he found himself rooting for them, not that he would go that far when they played Puddlemere. It was a contrast to the way he felt about the Harpies, despite Alicia's role on the team - though that could be attributed to the fact he'd found out their captain was a bit of a duplicitous bitch as much as anything.

"The annual fundraiser is coming up," Barnaby Lockwood, the team manager, was saying - as they sorted through offensive sets for the next game.

"Bloody fucking hell," Oliver muttered, leaning back in his chair.

Every year the International Association of Quidditch held a ball to raise money for the 'magically displaced persons' fund - something that had grown a lot more needy the previous year. It was part of their League's morals clause that they support it in some fashion; in the first few years Oliver had managed to avoid the banality by sending a generous cheque when it was hosted in more remote international locations, the team supporting them not being absent from England during the season. The last year he'd been dragged to Paris by Gwenog, where he'd wanted to turn his wand on himself after an hour, though she could always manage to be the life of the party. This year it was in England, this year it meant more, and they were all going - no excuses.

Barnaby hesitated, obviously pretending to look at the Harwick offensive without seeing it, before saying in a practiced casual voice. "You going solo this year then, Wood?"

Oliver looked up sharply, "If I had a choice I wouldn't be going at all."

"No," the other man cleared his throat, "but since you are, no. . . bird waiting in the wings then?"

"Since when is my personal life something we discuss at these meetings? You wearing knickers under those trousers Barnaby?"

The other man looked distinctly uncomfortable. He was not the most assertive sort. Twice Oliver's age, and looking three times it, he knew his Quidditch and he knew the players - but he left the 'management' to Oliver more than anything, when it came to the outward. "Listen, I got pulled into a meeting with the owners, and they suggested you. . . might want to go solo."

"As opposed to that humpback kneazle I was planning on taking?" Oliver was beyond confused.

Barnaby sighed heavily, "It's gotten round you're staying with the chaser from the Tornadoes. In Quidditch circles anyway. We're just suggesting you keep. . . whatever's going on there your business, and nobody else's."

There was no way Oliver was going to be offering explanations to Barnaby or anyone, they didn't have the right to them - what Katie and he were or weren't, it didn't matter. Where he lived was also none of their bloody business. What the other man was obviously suggesting though was that he wasn't 'allowed' as a member of Puddlemere to go to the ball with Katie, be it friend or otherwise - for the sake of public perception. Oliver felt the annoyance grow; he could point out that it was a masquerade, that nobody was supposed to know who anybody was (which often led to an inordinate amount of trysts, and rare honesty), but that wasn't the point. The point that was that they were trying to dictate this.

"Nobody had any concerns when I went with Gwenog Jones last year," he kept his tone conversational, "and her a member of the Harpies no less."

Barnaby simply looked confused, "Are you shagging Gwenog then?"

It was almost a refreshing to come across somebody so clueless. The other man had never read a paper in his life, and obviously had never started. Not only did Barnaby not know they had been shagging, and that they had been public about it much to his chagrin, he also didn't know it had ended disastrously - and publically as well. Oliver couldn't help but smile slightly as he shook his head, the other man looking so blank, "Not anymore."

It told him though they didn't give a shite about the fact that Katie was from another team, it was about that never proven - and barely alluded too - rest, that 'might' be there.

Oliver leaned back in his chair, not answering directly. "The team doesn't dictate my life," he said simply. "Keep in mind I'm going to do what I want, or what I think is right."

Barnaby's face shrunk up in a wrinkled, and rueful, grin. "Trust me when I say they bloody well know that Oliver. If they don't, I certainly do."

In the beginning of the season previous, when he'd publically protested the attempt to shuffle muggleborns from the league, when he'd actively championed them, when he'd actively denounced the sham Ministry - the team had opposed him. They didn't want to risk the season, or him in the context of one of their star players. They'd also been rather vehement about him toeing the team line of practiced indifference. He hadn't listened then, and they should have learned that he wasn't going to be dictated too - about Quidditch or anything else.

They'd come to respect that, they'd had to - if they wanted him on their team.

The odd thing was though, when he put the thought to Katie later that they go together, she practically dismissed it out of hand.

"Why?" She asked, as she watched him prepare dinner, which basically involved him waving his wand to slice some bread and send leftover chicken flying between the slices.

"For company," he said, shooting her a look, "you daft bird. Considering the fact that neither of us are shagging anybody, it would seem like a good idea to go together. As friends." The emphasis on the last word was slightly inadvertent, but it was there.

He missed the way her eyes narrowed slightly, and couldn't quite hear the words under her breath that sounded suspiciously like, 'I'm not that offensive you prat', before she shrugged. "I might not be shagging anybody, but I have a date already Oliver."

That surprised him. In truth he hadn't really thought about 'taking' her until he'd been counseled against it, but he'd found the idea appealing. Save maybe Alicia, there was nobody else there that he really even wanted to hold a conversation with, and it would be a lot more entertaining with her by his side for the night. He hated the stupid guess work of masquerades, not having any idea who anybody was - he liked up front. He also wasn't the fan of the multitude who thought that being in 'disguise' meant that they could do whatever the hell they wanted without consequence. Besides the fact he'd enjoy the night more, Katie had always been tolerant of his pathetic dancing - not much better herself, and would be perfectly happy to leave after a few requisite hours with him.

"Who?" He found himself making the question more demanding.

Katie grinned, popping a crisp in her mouth, "Alicia. Lee told her he would rather have his bollocks sectumsempra'd, and we figured we'd have a better time together without blokes anyway. She's going to doll me up at her place, and then we'll apparate over."

The part of his reaction that had been a jealousy he didn't want to admit faded. Smiling without realizing it, Oliver pushed a plate with a sandwich across the counter to her.

 

******************************

 

It was sitting in Alicia's flat though, a week later, that Katie came to regret her decision to come over before the ball. She would have been better off with Oliver; they would have been ready in twenty minutes and off. Plus, he wouldn't have cared if she'd worn a burlap sack - he seemed to be blind to that sort of thing most of the time. He'd probably notice if she let her tits hang out, but that was about it. Alicia by contrast had rifled through her wardrobe for over half an hour until she'd found something semi appropriate, then they had spent half an hour transfiguring it to change a few details and get the fit right. Then of course there were the requisite beauty charms, skin potions, and hair styling - Katie still had the feeling they were two little dolls that were being dressed up. Alicia however seemed to be reveling in it.

"Blue for the eyes, green or silver?" Alicia asked, examining herself critically in the mirror.

"Green," Katie replied absent-mindedly, paying more attention to Alicia's recent Quidditch Quarterly magazine than to the question.

"It's a navy dress!"

She raised her head in exasperation, "Then why did you even ask?" Alicia simply rolled her eyes before applying the silver she'd intended to wear all along.

At the rate they were going they were going to be horrifically late. Not that Katie minded all that much, considering she wasn't looking all that forward too it in the first place. It would be better, to be sure, than the parties her parents used to drag her along too - no matter how formal it was meant to be these were Quidditch players, but it was still a bloody ball. And, she still didn't have too many more close friends in that world than Alicia and Oliver with whom she'd be perfectly content to spend an evening in her flat with.

She couldn't help but think about Oliver's invite either, or the lack thereof. It wasn't that she minded going as friends, considering that was what she was doing with Alicia, but somehow his invitation had grated all the same. Like he had to explicitly emphasize that it would be nothing more, that he wanted nothing more. Being around him more, she felt like her life was an up and down emotional ride. Sometimes she could pretend friendly indifference, and sometimes she felt something more there. Sometimes she thought that he might see her as more than a skinny little thing he chummed around with, and sometimes she had to realize he saw her as just that. Apparently he only forgot when he was drunk, depressed and desperate. All of the time as well, she couldn't even figure out if she wanted him to see her as anything more. Oliver was. . . Oliver, and Quidditch was all he thought about anyway.

"Come," Alicia said, leaning down and brandishing her wand, "let's finish you off."

Resigned, Katie closed her eyes. She really did feel like a doll. She had never been good at this sort of thing, or at least she had never been comfortable with it. Still, it was easy enough to sit docilely while Alicia waved her wand and did her magic - saving Katie trying to figure out what would make her look better rather than like a hooker in Knockturn Alley.

"There," the other woman's smile was triumphant when Katie finally opened her eyes.

She urged Katie to her feet, bringing her to stand in front of the mirror.

Unable to help herself, Katie stared back at herself, transfixed. The violet sheath dress danced with subtley charmed flower patterns, and molded to her body like a second skin. Her hair had been done to hang in brown flowing ringlets around her shoulders, laying sleek without it's customary frizz. The charms while not ostentatious, thank Merlin, seemed to make her face brighten, and gave her eyes a bedroom look. She felt like moving a single toe was going to shatter the spell, and she felt like she was going to trip the second she tried to walk in the damn heels, but still staring at herself in the mirror right then, she looked almost. . . .

Alicia placed her hands on Katie's shoulders and put her face beside hers, "See, you look bloody gorgeous. I really know what I'm doing, don't I?" Winking, she gave a pat before stepping back, "I can think of a certain keeper who's not going to be able to keep his eyes off you."

"I don't know what you're talking about," Katie said abruptly, averting her gaze that had been locked with Alicia's in the mirror.

Alicia rolled her eyes as she went to search through her jewelry box. "Bells, have you not learned by now not to play coy with me? I'm not dense - you and Oliver take the cake on that."

"I'm not looking for Oliver to. . . "

"Oh please," Alicia waved her hand. "If you two would ever just talk to each other, you could just get this sorted out. You've wanted him to whatever since your first year at Hogwarts."

"At which point you and Angelina both informed me that you would disown me as a friend if I didn't stop mooning over his annoying arse."

"Details. That was a long time ago, the crush is passed but. . . "

"No buts," Katie said firmly. "It passed. We're friends."

"Who snogged. . . "

"Because we were both drunk, and one of us was having a particularly bad day."

Alicia gave her a pitying look. "Merlin but the two of you are hopeless."

It was a stark contrast to Angelina who would probably still would half disown Katie as a friend if she expressed anything but regret over the snogging, or if she desired things between them to go further. Before Katie could refute Alicia's statements further, the other was grabbing her wand and their masks, managing sticking charms to get them to stay on their faces - then deciding the best way to transfigure their features for the evening to ensure true anonymity.

By the time they apparated over to the Cleoninda hotel in London where the ball was taking place, they were close to two hours past the start of the affair. Still, they weren't the only ones making a fashionably late arrival. People of the Quidditch world were still making their way in, laughing in groups. Alicia hooked her arm companionably through Katie's as they walked in, handing off their cloaks to an attendant and dropping off the requisite donation - which in their cases as new players didn't amount to much. Fortunately the team owners, with the much deeper pockets, had bought the tickets for the evening.

"Merlin, it's gorgeous," Alicia sighed as they paused at the top of the stairs, looking down on the ballroom below.

Katie had to agree, as she stared at the winter wonderland scene below. The floor was charmed to look like sheer ice, and everything seemed coated in snow that glistened in the soft lights. There was enough green too, in terms of boughs and trees, to fill a forest. What was normally a plain brown ceiling looked like the night sky, with stars glistening bright, the brightest above what was the central Christmas tree at the edge of the ballroom. Despite the warmth of the room, Katie almost felt chilled with the reality of the scene.

"Come on," Alicia said as they strolled down the stairs, taking it all in, "I think this is the perfect excuse for some high quality champagne."

There was a certain level of freedom in the evening, and Katie felt her spirits lighten as they wandered amongst the crowd, with everybody playing coy about each others identities. Nobody knew who she was, and nobody cared. When she bumped into what she was fairly sure was one of the Tornadoes players, considering the ring with the team logo he wore, instead of looking at her like he wanted her avada'd and off the starting line, he smiled and flirted. Katie relaxed as time went on, for more reasons they the minimal champagne she'd allowed herself. It was a fantasy, a silly temporary escape, but for the evening she'd take it. In some ways she was tired of being herself, since so few people she had to be around with on a daily basis seemed to like that version at the moment.

"I wish Lee was here," Alicia was saying wistfully as they found an empty table, sitting down to rest. The dancing was going on in front of them, couples twirling in the moonlight - well, the fake moonlight.

There was a high level of romance to the evening, even if that wasn't the purpose of it. The decorated wonderland, the lighting, the soft music they'd chosen over something like the Weird Sisters - it all contributed, along with beauty of the attired. Katie who didn't even have a specific yearning like Alicia, learned for somebody to share it with - Puddlemere keeper or not.

"What?" She asked, keeping her tone light as she sipped at champagne, "I'm not enough for you for the evening? I swear I'm much better at snogging than Lee."

Alicia giggled, having imbibed much more than Katie. "Well, there is some charmed mistletoe by the cloak room everybody is trying very hard not to avoid if we need an excuse." It might be early December only, but it hadn't stopped them from exploiting the Christmas mood. Not that Katie could blame them - it was working.

They were both sitting there in companionable silence, watching the people around them, when a tall man in dress robes strolled up to them. His complete discomfort in them didn't give his identity away - there was many a man who would be completely out of sorts in dress robes - but the hint of his Scottish brogue when he spoke was more than enough. They only other Scots in the league were a diminutive seeker for the Cannons, a sleek female chaser from the Harpies, and a beanpole of a beater from Montrose.

"Fancy seeing you both here," he said, looking like he would shuck the robes immediately if he could.

Alicia looked crestfallen, "I thought I'd done such a good job at transfiguring our features around the masks."

"You did," Oliver reassured her, sitting down at their table, not expanding on how he had known it was them then.

The momentary annoyance passing, Alicia looked Oliver, "Don't you look dapper this evening."

"Not too bad yourself Spinnet," he said with a grin. He turned his attention to Katie, clearing his throat slightly. "You look. . . good too, Bell."

Alicia rolling her eyes was practically audible. Katie resisted the urge to turn towards her, either to stick out her tongue or strangle her, she wasn't sure which. The other woman was going to be responsible for putting ideas in her head or Olivers which simply weren't there on their own. "You clean up good," was all she said, trying not to focus on exactly how good he did look in his dress robes. He really had been going for as much anonymity as he could, because much as they mocked his pretty legs - Oliver tried for dress robes that incorporated a kilt as much as he could for proper and important affairs. He was a proud Scot, even if he played in a league that wasn't based out of the country.

They were interrupted by Alicia's sudden intake of breath beside Katie. She looked around, finally following Alicia's gaze to the top of the steps. Up there stood a man who obviously hadn't gotten the memo that it was a masquerade ball, looking distinctly uncomfortable as he surveyed the room below. There was no mask or transfiguration to hide Lee's identity but he did look good in his dress robes, which Katie hadn't even been aware he owned.

Alicia waved widely to get his attention, and relief settled on his face when he realized the gesture was to get him. Shoving his hands in the pockets, he made his way over to their table.

There was no hesitation when Alicia got to her feet and threw her arms around him, "You came!"

Lee looked distinctly embarrassed even as he joked, "You better bloody well be Alicia; not that I don't like you as a friend Katie, but. . . "

Alicia elbowed him, and he only slipped an arm around her waist. "I couldn't be a complete prat about this, could I? I might think this is more torture than a cruciatus, but you've been nattering on about it for weeks now. I rather fancy not having my shagging privileges cut off."

As romantic declarations went, it left something to be desired, but it was obvious Alicia considered his presence romantic enough. "Thank you," she said, kissing him softly and resting her hand on his chest.

Lee cleared his throat, uncomfortable, especially in front of the other two. "Right, well. . . right. Listen Bell, you don't mind if you snag your date for a dance or two, do you?"

Touched herself, Katie was already waving her hand, "Snag away. She was a horrible date anyway, wouldn't even let me snog her."

Lee grinned devilishly before pulling Alicia out onto the dance floor. For all he had no desire to be at things like this, he was more than a decent dancer. They moved comfortably across the floor, spinning in rapid succession before they disappeared into the rest of the crowd. Katie could only smile as she watched them, before turning her attention back to Oliver, only to find that his attention had been directly on her. He cleared his throat rather obviously again, before averting his eyes to the dance floor.

"What?" Katie asked.

"Nothing," he said quickly, "absolutely nothing."

Lovely, it was going to be an awkward sort of encounter. Still, not fancying the two of them yelling across the table, Katie scooted her chair around to sit closer to his. Not that she should have bothered. The two of them sat there in silence, only watching those having a good time in front of them, and most determinedly not looking at each other.

Eventually, a new song started to play, and there was no sign of Alicia and Lee reappearing. Katie found herself humming along to the song however. It was one she'd loved since she was a little girl, caught up in the mystery and magic and watching her mum get dressed up for a ball as it had been the woman's favourite to have playing. Slow and elegant, it wasn't the normal music she fancied, but there was never going to not be a time that the music didn't mean something to her. Instrumental, there were no words, but every time she heard it she stopped and listened.

"We should dance," Oliver said abruptly.

"I don't think it's mandatory."

"Well, you like the song," his voice was determined.

"Doesn't mean I have to dance to it," she countered, knowing if nothing else both of them combined for about four left feet when it came to dancing. He didn't exactly sound enthused at the prospect either, and she found herself being contrary as a reflex.

"Merlin Katie, have you ever heard of graciously accepting an invitation to dance?"

Katie might have countered that she'd missed any actual invitation, he'd only offered a demand, but decided that was going to get them nowhere but into an argument. She hesitated, but got to her feet as he did the same. She tried not to let her stomach flutter when he took her hand into his, but failed miserably. Neither of them spoke as he drew her amongst the dancers, and she placed her hand on his shoulder.

For all the music might have slowed, the others managed to dance in an arrangement around them. The two of them though, simply seemed to revert to swaying back and forth; not elegant, not practiced, but still dancing all the same. Twice Katie almost stepped on his toes, but managed to just evade them. It had nothing to do with her leg, though that twinged, it had to do with her lack of rhythm on the dance floor. She was purposefully not looking up at his face as they danced, or tried too, because all she could hearing niggling at the back of her mind was the niggling little voices of simpleton little girls she'd been foisted in on in years past by her parents - insisting that looking up at the man when you were dancing was an invitation that you wanted to be kissed. She expected the requisite jokes between them, how they could be so comfortable on the pitch, but so uncomfortable in dancing, but instead there was only silence save the music and the couples around them.

"How did you know?" Katie asked finally, unable to stand it any longer. "That it was us I mean."

For the longest time Oliver didn't answer. Then he cleared his throat. "I didn't know it was Alicia, but I knew it was you."

"How?" She said, mystified. Her hair was nothing like normal, the mask hid her eyes, and the transfiguration of her features had been excellent.

Something was shifting with Oliver. Her gaze had slid up to his face inadvertently, but his eyes had locked with hers. There seemed to be a tight tension between them, holding her close to him. The hand that had rested comfortably on her waist slid up to her bare arm, lightly tracing the skin he found there. "These," he said quietly, his fingers light upon her flesh.

Katie didn't have to look to know what he meant. Across both her arms, and other parts of her body as well, she had skinny faint scars - a byproduct of each curse that had hit her, and caused her skin to stretch as it coursed through her body. She barely thought of them, never paid attention to them, barely noticed them. She hadn't even realized anybody else could notice them, or had. She couldn't believe that Oliver had recognized her from them. She didn't say anything, not sure how to respond.

They'd basically stopped in the middle of the dance floor, barely even swaying though they remained in each others embrace.

He didn't even seem to notice her direct attention. "I notice everything about you," he said quietly, then flushed slightly at the words.

In that moment, Katie wanted nothing more than to kiss him, have him kiss her. She wanted it to happen with stark clarity between them, not addled by drink. His fingers still lightly caressed her, as if he had forgot he had even moved them. It wasn't mindless, but still, she wanted it without even a single thought as to the future. In the moment, in what felt like that almost perfect moment, she simply wanted to feel him close.

"Oliver," she began, her voice rough, held by the look in his eyes, but she was interrupted.

Lee and Alicia had come up behind Oliver, twin looks of worry and upset on their face. Katie cut off whatever she had been about to say, because she wasn't even sure what it would have been, the moment broken by their arrival. In that moment Katie wasn't sure if it was a fortunate interruption or not.

"I got a message from Angelina," Lee was saying, "we need to head over to her flat."

 

******************************

 

For all the curiosity, Lee hadn't filled them in in the slightest as they'd hurriedly shrugged into their cloaks, and headed outside to apparate over - though he'd managed to convey that it was a matter of some urgency. Oliver resisted the urge to try and drag it out of him, because he really couldn't think of what it would be that would make her owl the hotel for Lee directly rather than one of the girls. Still, there was no surprise on the part of Lee it seemed, like he knew whatever had been going on. From Katie he knew Angelina had been away for weeks, with her and Alicia having no idea as to her whereabouts.

When they got to the flat though, a haggard looking Angelina opened the door. Gone was the normal woman, a pinched and drawn stranger had taken her place.

"He's here?" Lee asked quietly, pushing past her to enter.

Angelina nodded, exhausted, "He was trying to kill himself all across Greece."

At that moment she seemed to take in all their appearances. For all they'd tossed cloaks over top, and discarded the masks and transfigurations, the four of them were still dressed in their finery and looking all dolled up. "I'm sorry," she said briefly, "I didn't know. . . but I can't do this on my own. Not this time."

"What the hell is going on?" Alicia demanded, both of Lee and Angelina, not liking being kept in the dark by either of them.

They all seemed to glance towards the loo of her flat, where they could hear the shower running. Lee and Angelina shared a glance before she was the one to answer. "It's George," she said, sitting down wearily on the sofa while they all found a place to collapse down. "You know that he's basically been absent since Fred. Lee and I, we've been tracking him, trying to make sure we stop him from coming to any harm. The first time he was drinking his way across Germany, the next he was taunting dragons in Russia. He's stopped caring, and he'd never come home if we didn't make him."

"If you didn't make him," Lee said quietly, "I'm just the inadequate support here."

Angelina closed her eyes. "This time he was in Greece. We'd let him go, knowing that he was going to leave regardless, but that night at the Leaky Katie, when I left - I'd got the owl about him. He was getting himself noticed by the wrong people, picking fights with some powerful wizards. By the time I tracked him down, he was on Crete, deep in his cups like he'd been for weeks and going after men he had no business going after - those he thought were Death Eaters. He's seemed to make it personal mission to scout out every person who might have inadvertently been associated with Rookwood, guilty of anything or not."

Rookwood, the Death Eater who's spell had killed Fred.

"I got him out before he could do any damage that couldn't be undone," Angelina said quietly, "or before they did something to him. He's not exactly thanking me for it."

They'd all known to some extent that George wasn't doing well, but they hadn't realized the way it had truly been. Oliver had known, that he'd been acting self destructively, but not like this. He hadn't truly known the extent of Lee and Angelina's actions either, to try and protect him from himself.

"What about his family?" Alicia asked quietly.

Lee responded, "They don't know the half of it. They just know he disappears. They are trying to give him his 'space', hoping he'll come back to them, but they don't know what he's doing."

The shower had stopped, not that any of them had noticed yet. They all sat there around Angelina's living room, not knowing what to say or do. There was no way for them to take away the grief, no way to bring back Fred. They couldn't keep him chained to the Burrow or the WWW either.

Angelina rubbed a hand over her face, "I've been away from the Ministry for four weeks, trying to bring him back. They would've sacked me already except I told them my aunt died." This from the woman who was all about duty, and took everything she did incredibly seriously; it was a testament to how worried about George she was. "I wouldn't involve you lot, and I'm really sorry but. . . "

Oliver cut her off, gently. "Angelina, he's our friend too." Not that he was sure exactly of what they could do. She shot him a look which was probably the most complimentary one she'd ever given him.

"It's Christmas in just a few weeks. He's going to spend it with his family if I have to keep him under a spell here until then," Angelina said stubbornly, "it's their first Christmas since the battle, and they - and he - need to spend it together. I'm not letting him go try and get himself killed before then."

As if Christmas was some magical fix all event, and like forcing George into it was the best course of action. Still, Angelina seemed determined.

Still, he agreed with Katie when she nodded, "Whatever we can do." It was going to be for Angelina as much as for George it seemed.

Whatever she had been going to say however was cut off by the loo door opening, and George stepping out. Oliver was taken aback at the sight of him, his first since Fred's funeral. The other man seemed to have lost over a stone, and there was a hardness to him that had never been there before. Gone was the light-hearted joker that had plagued all of them to no end. His eyes narrowed when he caught sight of the group strewn about the flat.

"Lovely to see you all," he said in a monotone, then with his eyes shooting towards Angelina, "Merlin's knickers, it wasn't bad enough you had to become a perpetual pain in my arse, you had to bring the others in on it as well?"

Angelina flinched slightly, but got to her feet. "They all care that you're trying to piss your life down the toilet."

Walking over to the kitchen and rummaging around in the fridge, George didn't offer anything else to the group of them gathered. Oliver was almost surprised that he didn't try to apparate out, but remembered the even nastier wards around Angelina's building. It was obvious how little George had wanted to be dragged back, and he had to wonder at how Angelina had even done it. Then again the woman had experience with wizards much more vicious, but she wasn't friends with them. What it meant though was that to keep him still, it was going to be virtual captivity unless he had some sort of epiphany.

"I'll be round in the morning," Lee said abruptly, "drag him back to the flat with me for a few hours." He and the twins had been sharing the place above the WWW before the battle, and he'd remained there despite Fred's death and George's disappearance.

"I'll take tomorrow night," Alicia chimed in, "I don't sleep anyway."

"I'll stay right now," Katie said, "because you need some sleep."

They all sorted out a schedule of sorts then, in quiet whispers, at least for the few following days. Oliver promised he'd be by for most of the day after the one Lee had taken. He didn't necessarily agree with the makeshift plan, keeping George prisoner essentially, but he was agreeing to it all the same. In Angelina's eyes he could almost see a manic look that surprised him, used to her being cool and contained, or at least angry. Somehow she had believed this was the solution and the answer, and it had become important to her.

"This is fucking ridiculous," George said, as they all stood.

The statement was largely ignored, but Alicia walked up to him and hugged him tightly. George didn't push her off, but he was frozen solid in her embrace. "It's good to have you back," she said quietly with her chin on his shoulder, "even if you're being a selfish prat."

She pulled away and headed out the door before he had a chance to respond.

Lee and Oliver hesitated, but followed after her without saying anything, neither sure what to say - especially following that. Oliver for his part felt uncomfortable in George's presence, not sure how to address what he had lost, or if he should. Wasn't sure how brutally honest he should be, and how considerate. He could be a jailer, but when it came to being a friend in these circumstances he wasn't good at knowing how.

They left Katie behind with Angelina and George.

"Thank you," Angelina said to Katie, giving her hand a squeeze, "try not to be too much of a soft touch, please?" The look in her eyes was almost pleading.

George came and sat down in a chair before Angelina could take off, which Katie hoped was soon because she looked like she hadn't slept in a week. "Why are you doing this?" He asked the words quietly of Angelina.

"I'm not going to let you hurt yourself." She crossed her arms.

"I'd rather hurt them," George countered.

"There is no them anymore," Angelina said bluntly, "there is no enemy. Killing people isn't going to bring him back; drinking yourself into a stupor isn't going to numb the pain either."

"I'm glad you can forget him so easily then, forget it all so easily." Despite the nature of George's words, they were almost said conversationally.

Angelina simply stared at George for a moment. They seemed to have forgotten Katie's presence entirely, and she was content to fade into the purple fabric of the sofa. She would have left the room, but that might mean that they would remember she was there. "There isn't a moment," Angelina said finally, "that I forget about him. There isn't a moment that I don't care. He wasn't my brother, but. . . there isn't a moment I don't care, George."

George's words were blunt. "He wasn't your anything, Angelina. He didn't love you, you realize that right? He was snogging French birds, and hitting on anything in a skirt. You might have had. . . whatever you did, but it didn't mean anything to him."

It was hard to watch Angelina's face blanch at the comment, though she didn't react to it beyond that. Whatever this concern for George came down too, it wasn't out of a misplaced love for Fred. They had been mates who snogged, and a youthful indiscretion more than anything for Angelina - Katie knew that much. They were that innocent first love that wasn't really 'love', even a tougher girl like Angelina and a joking bloke like Fred had needed that. It had meant something to her, like she was sure it had meant something to Fred, and it was hard to believe George's harsh comment.

"If this is some sort of deluded attempt to get me to replace where you wanted him in your life, you're nutters," he continued on ruthlessly.

"Never the less," Angelina said with her voice impressively calm, not letting him get a rise out of her, "I'm going to save you from yourself - for you, more than anybody else."

She moved about, obviously needing to keep busy, straightening cushions and picking up belongings that lay littered across the room. It seemed like she'd heard it all before, like this wasn't the first time she'd taken the verbal emotional hits. It was too much to hope George would at least keep silent.

When the words came, they were spoken towards Katie who had been trying to remain invisible, but intended for Angelina all the same.

"She overestimates her importance," he said to Katie, in that same damn conversational tone, "to Fred, to me, to everybody probably. None of this is her place. Do you think half my siblings even remember or know her name? Yet she thinks she has a right to be my so-called saviour, when even all of them know it's best to leave me alone." Angelina's back stiffened, but still, she said nothing.

In this Katie could no longer stay silent. "George," she said quietly, "I know you're hurting, I know things have been horrible but. . . honest to Merlin, fuck off. She doesn't deserve this."

He didn't give any response outside of getting to his feet and striding towards the spare room, closing the door shut firmly behind him. In that moment, Katie could have hated him, she could have walked out that door without ever looking back and said to hell with him if he was going to treat people that way. What stopped her though, what would always stop her, was the haunted look in his eyes. Underneath the harsh words coming from a man who used to be George Weasley, was a level of pain none of them could understand.

Even after he'd left, Angelina didn't move. She sat on the sofa where she'd settled herself again, ramrod straight, staring straight ahead. Katie shifted closed to her, tossing an arm around her and resting her head against the taller woman's shoulders.

It took a moment, but Katie felt Angelina crumble slightly. She only sought relief in squeezing Katie's hand, nothing more, but it was difficult enough to see how hard it was on her.

"He's a selfish arse," Katie said quietly.

"He's hurting," Angelina countered. "I know it's not an excuse. . . but he's hurting."

'So are you' Katie wanted to say, wanted to demand that that count for something. Normally Angelina who would let nothing cross her, was taking the abuse here - trying to save somebody who refused to be saved. Trying to atone for things she couldn't fix, and trying to put back together a family she had no part of. She was trying to force sense into a grieving brother when that was never going to solve the problem, because grief had a timetable unique to each person, and there was no rushing it. But that was how Angelina did things, faced them head on, and believed if she was forceful enough that she could make people change - make the world change. Sometimes that wasn't going to be the answer.

When Angelina's next words came, Katie could barely hear them, "I just. . . need him to be okay, in the end."

And in that moment she understood what maybe even Angelina didn't yet - how much George himself meant to her. Not Fred, not the rest of his family, George. Without that level of emotion, nothing could lower her to care the way that she did.

"Tell me about the ball," she said finally, trying to cover up the emotion in her voice with a matter of fact tone, "I need the distraction."

What Angelina needed was sleep, but it was obviously a ploy to escape the nightmarish demons that would come with staring up at the ceiling. Caving, Katie shrugged, "It was pretty there, Alicia did a lovely job with our outfits - and Lee did show up in the end. I swear Alicia practically melted at the gesture."

"He's arse over teakettle for her," Angelina smiled, a genuine one.

"I think the sentiment is largely returned," Katie said dryly.

"I don't suppose any fit blokes asked you to dance then?"

Katie made a face, "Just Oliver," but her heart wasn't in the jest. With what had. . . sort of passed between them, almost had, she couldn't quite joke about him in the same way.

With the half-hearted mention, Angelina's expression grew resigned, the same expression she'd had that night Katie had told her about their cock-up of a snog all the months ago.

"Katie," she said, "what are you doing?"

"Nothing. I'm not doing him, if that's what you mean."

"But you want to," Angelina continued doggedly.

Katie had her own reasons for thinking even trying anything with Oliver would be a monumentally horrible decision, but for once she was completely exasperated with Angelina's tone. She wanted to be able to talk about this with one of her closest friends, have an honest to Merlin conversation - not be faced with immediate disapproval and condemnation. Every time she brought up Oliver around Angelina, that was all she ever got - despite them being identical in more ways than each one realized. Both of them thought they knew right, for her and for everyone, and both of them were control freaks more than they would admit too.

"What?" Katie demanded, "What is so bad about Oliver? Not evasions, not half truths, tell me. Why did I get this response every single bloody time. He's your friend, yet you talk about him like he's some awful git. He's not. I have my own reservations but. . . he's not."

For a moment, she thought Angelina wasn't going to answer again, but she was surprised. Maybe it was the exhaustion, maybe it was the emotion, but when Angelina opened her mouth she gave an honest to Merlin answer.

"He's an arrogant arse," Angelina said bluntly, looking at Katie, "with a God complex, who thinks he's the best at everything he does, and knows best about everything and everyone. He is obsessed with Quidditch with as singularity I've never seen in anybody else, any other player, and that rules his life before anything else. He thinks he can run life and the people around him the way runs a team. The thing is? I don't even mind it all that much - I could like him, really and truly, as a friend. But there's you Katie, and that makes me dislike him."

"Besides," she continued, "I know a lot of the same can be said about me, I do, but I'm not the one that you used to look at with hero worship in your eyes when you were eleven. I'm not the one you snogged. I'm not the one that you're half bloody in love with, even if you won't admit it. I'm not the one who would suck everything you are out of you in a relationship, because of needing to be in control, and placing a bloody sport before all other things."

When she offered the truth, Angelina had never been one to mince words. Katie found herself taken aback at the emotion behind them.

"That's ridiculous," she said finally.

"No," Angelina said, "it's not."

Katie's voice grew more firm. "Yes, it is. Oliver, he is what he is, and you're not. . . entirely off base, but Merlin Angelina - is there anybody on this bloody planet who believes I know what's best for me?"

"When it comes to Oliver," she was blunt, "I don't think you do."

"Hell," Katie cursed, getting to her feet, feeling like her skin was crawling. This was what her friendships amounted to? Her sort-of-not-really relationships too? People who thought she couldn't make proper decisions for herself, who though she was weak, who thought she was blinded. Oh, they were all doing it out of concerns and caring for her, but that didn't make it right.

"If I shag or marry Oliver," she said finally, "it's my decision to make, my mistake to make too. I might not be you, and I might not be Alicia, but I'm not a simpleton. You all just need to back the bloody hell off. I swear, I have a backbone - when it comes to men, when it comes to the world, when it comes to anything."

"I'm scared with him you won't use it. You'll revert back to the girl who giggled in the locker room, and who looked crestfallen at a single harsh word."

Katie wanted to rip something apart in frustration, maybe hex somebody, hit something. "Merlin. . . I'm not even saying I want something with Oliver, but I. . . aargh." She broke off on a frustrated noise.

"You asked," Angelina said simply.

It was true, she had, and she supposed it was better to know Angelina' honest opinion rather than danced around animosity like before. She wanted to defend Oliver, but it was going to solve nothing. It wasn't what the dislike was about anyway. It was tempting to be upset further, but she knew that Angelina's concerns came from caring and nothing else.

"Bugger off," she said finally, tired, and not looking forward to essentially a night of guarding the door.

Angelina gave a ghost of a smile, "Still friends?"

"Merlin, I suppose so. Seems a shame to waste all that history," Katie smiled slightly as well, "but. . . you're not my keeper Angelina, or Oliver's, or anybody's. Unless you want me to break your wand over your head eventually, you have to learn to remember that."

Even as Angelina swore she realized that, Katie knew they were just words. Easily said, not so easily meant.

 

******************************

 

Katie was exhausted, apparating home the next day, scared she was going to splinch herself in the process. Fortunately, or not so fortunately, it just gave her a splitting headache which persisted as she made her way up to the flat. Letting herself in, she found Oliver working stubbornly at remnants of paint on her kitchen walls. She'd caved and hired a cleaning crew, but no matter the spells, no matter the options, they hadn't been able to rid her of all the memories. The tail of 'bitch' remained in the kitchen. Nothing Oliver was doing to it, be it scrubbing or charming, was making any difference.

He turned when he heard her come in.

"Long night?" Oliver asked, setting aside the rag he had been using.

Katie could only nod wearily. Staying awake, trying to pretend she wasn't on guard duty had been bad enough. Between Oliver, George, and Angelina the night had been emotionally draining as well. She calculated if she fell into bed immediately she could get a solid six hours before their scheduled afternoon practice.

"Come on," he said, throwing an arm around her shoulders and bringing her into the living room, "I have just the thing."

He set her down in front of him while he sat on the sofa, hands rubbing at her neck and shoulders. More pleasurable than anything sexual, Katie moaned at the release of tension as he worked at the knots she carried in her shoulders, loosening beneath his hands. It had been a long time since she'd treated herself to a massage, when they used to be a post-game ritual. It was amazing how therapeutic it could be. "Hmm," she hummed, feeling the delicious release that came from the pain of his thumb digging in.

"I've been thinking," Oliver said finally, "about last night."

"What about last night?" Katie's response was absent-minded, paying more attention to the massage.

"The dancing, the. . . us," he said.

And all of a sudden, the tension came right back.

Katie pulled away from his hands, sitting on the coffee table and turning to him, not willing to have that sort of conversation anything but face to face. "What 'us'?" She said evasively.

The look he shot her was derisive. "Fucking Merlin, you're not that dense." He waved a hand, "There was a. . . moment."

She was surprised enough that he was acknowledging it. She was even more surprised that he seemed to want to discuss it. "We've had 'moments' before Oliver," she said, "that were best left ignored. This one. . . it came to nothing."

"Well, I think it should come to something," Oliver said decisively, "I wasn't expecting it, but I've been bloody dense myself all this time. I like you a lot Katie, I always have, and I've liked being here with you - when you're not being in idiotic ninny," he grinned affectionately. "We make sense you and I, we have so much in common. I think we should give 'us' a chance." He took her hand in his, and Katie was too surprised to pull it back in time.

Her first thought was that once upon a time, she would have been arse over teakettle herself at his words. Even now, she was tempted by them. This was Oliver, pursuing her, wanting her.

However when she really heard them, really listened, something in her backed away.

This was Oliver slipping back into convenience, wanting her because she was there - not because she was her. This was him wanting her because she loved Quidditch, and would accept easily that he did too. There was no mention of true affection; Merlin she liked Lee and George but she wasn't about to try and shag them. She wasn't expecting love declarations, she wasn't expecting roses and chocolates, but she deserved something a little more than he was giving if they were ever going to work. Her own feelings, or at least the potential of her own feelings, were never going to make up for that. The young girl that had crushed on him wanted her to ignore the misgivings and snog him, the woman who actually liked him and cared about him knew she needed a little bit more.

"No," Katie said, shaking her head, "no, we shouldn't."

At her words, he looked more confused than crestfallen, "What are you talking about?"

"That 'us'," she clarified gently, "it's not going to work. We're friends Oliver, and it's not worth risking that because of any 'moment'."

"Katie, I don't have 'moments' with my friends. I have them with women I want to shag."

She didn't want to get into it with him, because she just wanted this forgotten. It was hard enough to turn him away as it was. Part of the problem too was that Angelina's words kept echoing in her ears too; not because they were something new and revolutionary, but because some of them were what she had always worried about too. At least at the times she'd ever considered Oliver as someone desirable.

"Listen, you fancy me, right?" He said, "You wouldn't have snogged me that night if you didn't, you're not that sort of female."

In that moment, she was annoyed enough however into honesty. He had never made any mention of fancying her - he only cared that she fancied him, and that meant she would just fall into a relationship with him. "It doesn't matter if I fancy you," she said, her voice more snappish than she had meant it, "because we simply don't suit. We would be a bloody disaster."

"Why?" He demanded, still not letting go of her hand.

"Because I want to come first to somebody," Katie said, letting it spill out, "because I want to know, that when it matters, I would come before Quidditch. I don't want somebody who I'm going to have to fight every day for the right to be heard. Most of all Oliver, I want somebody who wants me, desperately and completely - who isn't just turning to me out of convenience, though at least he's doing it sober this time." She almost wanted to take the words back the moment they left her mouth, but without the honesty she didn't know how else to explain it to him.

Oliver's hand tightened around hers. "That's not fair."

"I think it is," Katie responded quietly. "I. . . I'm not mad, and I'm not upset, I'm not. . . anything. I just know that we would never work, because we both deserve more - both of us. Not you just liking me because you've enjoyed living at my flat and we make sense."

Determinedly, she pulled her hand back from his. Oliver, for once in his life, seemed flabbergasted - completely without words. He didn't say anything as she got to her feet. Katie hesitated, but she added. "You're welcome to stay, my couch is yours for as long as you want it and need it, but if you're gone in the morning I'll understand that too."

Before she weakened, she left him sitting there, heading to her own bedroom and shutting the door determinedly.

Oliver for his part, couldn't think of the right words as Katie turned to go. He'd thought he had the right ones when he'd tried to tell her how he felt, but obviously he'd blown that spectacularly. He wasn't good at this sort of thing, at romance, at women. Gwenog and he had only fallen into each other because it had been about sex, and she'd been bloody good at initiating it. With this, when it mattered, he'd thought she'd get it. Katie knew him, she always had, and she knew that he was complete shit at emotions and words. At least when it came to anything personal.

Maybe that had been his problem too, thinking of her as Katie - the friend whom he was starting to care for, rather than a woman he was trying to start a relationship with. There was a distinction there, in the approach at least, he supposed.

It was tempting to go after her, pound on the bloody door, but he didn't know how to do it without sticking his foot in his mouth further. He didn't know how to say, that it terrified him, how much he was realizing she meant too him. The night before, at the ball, it had been the epiphany the previous weeks had been leading towards. He couldn't lie and say he'd fancied her forever - he hadn't, he'd been blind - but he fancied her now, he fancied her a fucking lot, and that was what mattered. It might have been easier to explain all that if she hadn't been Katie, but he'd probably have mucked it up then anyway.

The other thing that stopped him from going after her was the things she'd said, the presumptions she'd made. They ate at him more than he would care to admit.

Annoyed with her and with the situation, Oliver sat back down on the sofa, knowing he'd be back in his own flat by morning.

 

******************************

 

"You're bloody boring company," George complained, tossing his cards down on the table - one of them bursting into flame with the contact.

They were at Angelina's flat, playing exploding snap because Oliver couldn't stand them sitting around and staring at each other. It was a child's game, but her flat wasn't exactly a wealth of entertainment opportunities. And, despite George's sarcastic suggestion, he was not getting involved in a game of strip poker with the other man. When it came right down to it neither of them were the best of company.

Out of group of them, the twins had always been the ones he identified the least with, and the ones he certainly didn't know how to deal with as well one on one. They were jokers and pranksters, and while he'd known on some level that they were capable of taking things seriously they weren't always good at showing it. They were also had a cruel streak that tied in with the jokes, and that wasn't something Oliver was comfortable with. It wasn't that he wasn't friends with them, but it was usually as being one of many - not them in particular.

Bitter, sarcastic George was even more of a stranger to him.

It didn't help that he wasn't in the best of mindset. Ever since Katie had turned him down rather definitely, that had been the case. Not even a win over Montrose the night before had lifted his mood. His flat felt cold and empty, and his bed somehow more uncomfortable than the lumpy couch he'd been sleeping on. He might have snapped if George had been light-hearted, but since he was anything but, Oliver certainly wasn't going to be able to cajole him out of it. He'd told himself that he didn't really care all that much, that it was just a passing fancy, but still - he'd had to fight not to snap at everybody in his path, and he'd taken a little too much pleasure in the violence of the Quidditch game.

"Snap out of it," Oliver said, setting down his own cards carefully and settling back in his chair, "and we won't have to put up with each other's company at all."

George's eyes narrowed, "I'm fine." When it came right down to it, Oliver hadn't been sure what defense George was going to go with to his statement - assertions he was fine, or berating Oliver for suggesting he dare to get over his grief. "Listen, just because I refuse to be a bloody homebody anymore, tied to. . . ."

"Spin the bullshit for the birds," Oliver said. "Not that they believe it anymore than I do." They just danced around George a little bit more. "You planning on going home for Christmas then?"

"Yes," the reply was automatic.

Right, and Oliver was born yesterday. "Then it shouldn't be such an imposition to stick around here for a bit, live off Angelina's galleons while you get coddled to death."

They didn't speak, sitting at the table with the cards strewn in front of them, arms crossed. Maybe Oliver should try to talk more, but he certainly didn't know what to say. He was just fine as a physical barrier to leaving the flat, but anything else he'd leave for the others - not that they were having much more success with it regardless. George had taken Lee's head off in a similar fashion as he kept trying to with Angelina, determined to try and burn every bridge that held him to England. Oliver had to wonder yet again, if there was a single bit of merit in their plan as it wasn't going to help the Weasleys if George did the same with them.

"Firewhiskey?" The other man asked, "Angelina has to keep some around here somewhere."

"Hardly. Practise in the morning, and I'm not getting pissed so you can take yourself off on whatever suicide mission you're contemplating next. Dragons, alcohol, or people you think might be dark wizards."

George's expression darkened. "It's not like that. It's never been like that."

"Then what's it been like?"

The other man pushed back in his chair as if he couldn't sit still, striding around the kitchen. He didn't answer. Oliver might not have it all figured out, but he could guess. Everything here was a reminder, from Diagon Alley to the Burrow; everybody here knew Fred. Giving himself a mission too, he could pretend that he was making some sort of difference, even if there was nothing in all truth to undertake. Oliver would probably do the same, search for the violence, if he'd been in the same situation. Not that he could imagine what it was like to lose a twin, but he could imagine the loss of anybody he cared about that deeply.

"I left the first time," George said abruptly, "the morning after the funeral. I started a joke about Ginny and. . . nobody picked up the end of it. They all just looked at me with pity."

"It's going to fade," Oliver's voice was quiet.

"Maybe," George said, settling back down in his chair, but his hands still twitched, "but somehow I think that's going to be worse. It means they've forgotten." Maybe if it started to fade for him, the raw driving pain, he was scared that he was going to forget as well.

"Listen," Oliver decided to directly address it, "nobody's trying to force you into being happy, even into being okay. Just don't go chasing enemies that aren't there, and don't get yourself even more fucked up in the process."

"Angelina's trying to force that."

"Angelina thinks she can force the sun not to set," Oliver retorted.

"As opposed to you who just goes with the flow. . . " at the other man's cheeky grin it was almost like old times. Except the grin faded, and there had been no real mirth there. Pretending to enjoy anything about life was still just a façade, same with needling others in humour.

At least the anger and cruelty was off his face - George just looked tired. There was the idea that it was easier for him just to be with Oliver there. To an extent maybe it was because he. . . well, in his own way cared less, and wasn't smothering the other man with it. It was easier to be contrary in the face of that.

"I don't hate her," George said finally. He didn't sound completely convinced of it however.

For a moment Oliver wanted to ask which 'her' he meant, but they both knew he was talking about Angelina - the one who was the header of this intervention of sorts, and the one who kept finding him in his lowest moments and trying to drag him back from them. "At the moment though," he added, "I don't like her very much either."

Oliver didn't give an answer, he didn't have one. Instead, he reached for the cards to shuffle them, dealing them another hand of exploding snap.

The woman they had been discussing though came through the door just as they began again. Angelina shrugged out of her cloak, looking tired and haggard, from work and from the situation. She nodded towards both of them, but didn't speak, Oliver knowing because she had little use for him - and just expecting scorn and hatred from George. Still, they were both watching out of the corner of their eye as she flopped down on the sofa and rested against the armrest - her fingers pressing into her forehead.

"Long day?" Oliver asked.

"Yes," her answer was brief and perfunctory, putting an end to his attempt at more banal conversation.

Not wanting to deal with any more drama beyond what he was suffering through personally, Oliver gently set down his cards - which he was fairly sure wasn't going to annoy George in the slightest - and stepped back from the table. Still, before he could shrug into his own cloak and get out of there, he was treated to their animosity all the same - feigned for emotional protection as it was.

George opened his mouth to speak, but Angelina beat him too it. "Nothing's changed," she said, sounding very tired - but all the more stubborn for it, "you're here, and I can kick your fucking arse if it's needed to keep it that way."

"It's not going to change anything," he said, "forcing me on my family. Merlin knows it hasn't solved anything forcing me on you lot."

Once upon a time, the group of them had been his family by choice, rather than his family by blood. Still, always, when it came right down to it that Weasley bond was going to mean much more. That was why George was so purposefully trying to avoid being faced with it.

"It's Christmas," Angelina said wearily, "miracles happen."

"It's not going to bring back Fred."

"I think George, that's something you might want to be telling yourself, next time you go portkeying off on some idiotic trip." Angelina got up and strode into the loo, likely in search of some sort of painkilling potion, and Oliver continued to feel uncomfortable while he stood by the door - sure then more than ever than if he left in that instant, George would be gone. For an escape more than any mission.

Though he normally thought her unflappable, Oliver was fairly sure that would bring down Angelina more than any of the rest of them.

 

******************************

 

Katie wasn't faring much better than Oliver in terms of feeling down.

It had been simple in theory, not taking him up on the suggestion of more. It had been easy to believe in the reasons why it was a good idea when she wasn't faced with the aftermath. They might manage the friends thing eventually, but they weren't managing it well right then - she hadn't seen him since that night, as he'd been gone from her flat when she'd awakened the night morning. Not that she had got much sleep, tossing and turning, and half regretting her decision for all she knew it was the right one. The thing was, she knew it wasn't going to be easy when underneath she did feel something for him, and if she thought what he felt for her was something akin to that she would want to risk the friendship for the chance.

Drawing the line between friendship and more had been the right decision, but it didn't make it an easy one.

She didn't know if it made it worse or better that they were playing Puddlemere next.

Arriving at the stadium as the away team by portkey, Katie tried not to keep glancing over her shoulder for him - knowing it wasn't going to happen, finding him anywhere in the near vicinity. Even if she was in favour with him, he wasn't going to be around her regardless - that was something neither of them needed, that scrutiny, from teammates or the press. Instead she changed, laced up her boots, all amidst laughing and joking teammates who largely ignored her until they got her out on the pitch - and then it was only attention with the quaffle, not with words.

The game was easier; she was only intent on scoring. She didn't even notice if his expression was more thunderous every time the quaffle slipped past a hoop.

In truth, her assumption was that for Oliver the fact he'd even made the overture would be easily forgotten. A lot quicker than it would be for her. He wouldn't be hurt, because it hadn't been about any deep desire - just a superficial want that would pass. Still, she was unaccountably uncomfortable at the thought of talking with him for the first time again.

In the end, Puddlemere won by the catching of the snitch - their goal tally having been relatively equal until that point. A rare loss, but that didn't it make it any more welcome as they watched the United players celebrating on the pitch. Katie tried to tell herself there was no jealousy when one of the female beaters placed a smacking kiss on Oliver's cheek.

Tutshill undressed and packed up their gear quickly, knowing there would be an extra long team meeting the next day dissecting the loss, and nobody looking forward to it. Katie was one of the last ones lingering, having tried to drown out the frustration of her loss and her current personal life in the shower, casting a drying charm on her hair when Gregory Bunson walked up beside her.

Save Harriet before, he had been one of the worst towards her. Outside of discussion about game play, they never conversed anymore except in hostile glares. Time and her winning personality hadn't softened him; he seemed content to buy into unfounded rumours, and was upset too by the loss of his friends on the team. Katie was almost tired enough of giving him the benefit of the doubt. Still, she mustered a semi-pleasant expression and didn't ask him if he was there to hex or stare her to death.

"I need your broom," he said without much preamble.

"Sorry?"

It seemed he was working hard to not snap, "The equipment manager is trying out new charms to try and enhance the speed of the Firebolt 5000s for the next game."

Katie was normally fiercely protective of her broom, viewing it more like another limb than an inanimate object, and didn't really want to hand it off to the equipment manager let alone to Gregory. She would feel uncomfortable without it. Still, rather than putting it into her bag with the rest of the gear, she took it and held it in her hands for a moment before handing it off to the other man.

She took it as a minor personal victory when he didn't simply break it over his leg.

"When. . . "

"By tomorrow," Gregory said abruptly and cut her off, turning to leave. At least they were words, and it was rather pathetic for the team unity when that was all she had to take solace in. Katie was almost at peace with being a relative pariah at that point, almost. Sighing, she shoved the rest of the stuff into her sack and headed out. She had plans to grab dinner before apparating home though multiple stops rather than portkeying, wanting to avoid facing the empty flat for as long as she could even if she didn't want to admit it.

By the time she'd walked out of the stadium, nearly all the fans had dispersed. There were a few who lingered outside Puddlemere's door, looking for a possible autograph, but there was nobody else about. What few members of the press there had been for a mid-season league game had gone too, after getting their trite post game quotes in the locker rooms. Katie was glad to be allowed to escape into the anonymity as she let the door swing shut behind her.

Puddlemere was an entirely wizarding town, unlike most of the rest in England - not even plotted on muggle maps. It was large enough to support a team only because it drew from a multitude of small towns around, but small in and of itself; that was the reason most of United's players chose to live in places like London and apparate in. There was little there to recommend it. Therefore when Katie found a place to stop for dinner and a pint, it was one of the relatively few in town, and because of that the busiest.

Glad to be among a crowd, especially one who wasn't paying much attention to her, Katie headed towards the bar of the pub - intending to sit there by herself. In all honesty all she wanted was some comforting fish and chips, and maybe a few dozen pints.

She stopped suddenly in the middle of the pub, once she saw who was sitting there.

Oliver was at the bar with Marcus Flint of all people, snorting at something the other man had said. His companion barely registered however, her gaze was all for him. It was ridiculous, the urge she had to turn and rush out of the building. Still, she was frozen, not taking a single step forward. She did not want things to feel this complicated, and she hated herself because she was fairly sure she cared more than he did. Merlin knew he had taken her rejection easily enough. As her thoughts ran through her mind too, she realized she was being ridiculous and inane, but that was only on a cerebral level - her gut didn't seem to care.

He turned half to the side and noticed her. For a moment, his expression froze, before he raised his hand half in greeting.

Katie only returned the gesture with a weak smile, before actually giving into the urge and heading directly out of the pub.

Oliver watched her go, though he itched to go after her. He was not a puppy to pant after a woman, especially one who'd made it clear she didn't want anything to do with him on that level. Which might be partially on him, not that he was going to admit that. She'd basically said he was incapable of a proper relationship anyway, so why try and convince her of anything else? He was fairly sure he did want to put Quidditch first in his life at this point anyway, because even with teammate drama, and the latest blood feuds, the purity of the game was infinitely less complicated then women, and lessfrustrating. When he'd had his epiphany about Katie that night, he'd had a whole picture in his head of how he would get it to play out, and it was not going according to plan.

As he chugged back his latest pint quickly, Marcus smirked with an annoying level of perception.

"Birds," he said, "they are not fucking worth it."

"You've gotten nothing but pity fucks," Oliver countered wiping his hand across his chin, "or more likely paid ones over the course of your life, so you're in no position to judge."

 

******************************

 

The day of the game against Wimbourne Wasps had Oliver wandering around with nervous energy. He was always that way before matches, unable to sit still - double and triple checking every detail, and lecturing one player or another on something. He wasn't stupid, he knew he drove everybody else nutters, but he'd go crazy himself if he tried to sit still. Bad habits, they were impossible to break, not that he'd really tried. He wasn't like some of the others; he had no pre-game rituals he ascribed too - beards on a winning streak, getting on the broom a certain way, crossing ones self three times exactly, he didn't do any of that. He believed in skill and skill alone pulling him through, not superstition.

Marcus was bitching beside him about some puny little broom boy who had tried to take his broom the other day for 'work', but Oliver wasn't really paying attention.

"Like I'm going to entrust my fucking broom to some idiotic little. . . ."

"Marcus?" Oliver shot him a look, "Shut the hell up."

"You are so fucking annoying and uptight at the best of times, but I do hate you before games."

"Then go sit with somebody else. Oh wait, that's right, nobody else can tolerate your ugly mug."

Cecilia Blacklock, one of their chasers, was cleaning her broom next to them. She shot them a look over her shoulder. "Children, if you don't mind - we are about to play a game of Quidditch here."

The only retort Oliver had amounted to something entirely too childish like 'he started it', so he kept his mouth shut and focused on the defensive weaknesses of the Wasps' beaters. "Cecilia, you need to. . . "

"Aim for Frederick Gainsborough's left side - I've got it Oliver. We've been over this a million times." She shot him an annoyed look as she finished polishing the wood.

Well, it was their last game before the League went on hiatus for the holiday season - and a win meant that they would go into the break tied for the lead in their division. It wasn't a championship, but it was important all the same. If he had to drill it a thousand times into the team what advantages to exploit, he'd do it.

Norman, the seeker, wandered around towards him - still in his skivvies. He had an annoying habit of not getting ready - at least physically ready, until the very last minute, which drove Oliver insane.

"The Cannons beat the Harpies this afternoon," he announced, leaning on the locker banks - far too near to Cecilia for her comfort, who simply averted her eyes.

Oliver was surprised. The Cannons were hopeless yet again this season, and would continue to be until they finally sacked their seeker. He hadn't been going to check on the game results until after their own, assuming a sure loss - they hadn't won a game all season. That they could beat the Harpies, a team pegged to take the championship, was incredibly surprising. "Really?" He said in surprise, paying closer attention to Norman. "What happened? Did they imbibe a whole batch of felix felicitas?"

Norman shook his head, "Not exactly. Two of the Harpies players went down; and not just down, down. The charms on their brooms seemed to fail entirely. Wentworth Butkins broke a ton of bones, and their chaser. . . what's her name, Violet, isn't looking good - she's at St.Mungo's."

"Merlin," Cecilia breathed.

Those two, Oliver knew them, despite their talent he was glad they weren't on his team. Violet was one of those who had more than rumours spread about her; she'd been tried for minor war crimes for her actions against some of her muggleborn teammates, but was pardoned along with so many of the rest in the end. It hadn't changed what she'd done however. Wentworth was the sort who continued to cheat his way onto any team that would have him. Gwenog though had a bigger dedication to winning than him however, and there were even more things than Oliver she would be willing to overlook in the name of a good player.

Still, he didn't wish them that sort of ill. That was bloody horrible.

"They're not the only ones," Norman was continuing, "Bertie from Montrose, Andrea from Falmouth, Colin from Appleby - they all had suspicious 'accidents' in one form or another, mostly related to their brooms. Oh, and that new chaser for Tutshill - the one that Harriet had her knickers in a twist about, Bell? Same thing. All pureblood, all. . . suspicious. Either the broom companies are about to get their arses sued, or it's karma." He smirked slightly Marcus' way - he'd been the one who'd been trying to refuse to play with the other man in the first place.

Marcus ignored him, like he'd been doing since the beginning of the season. It had nothing to do with being the bigger man, he just didn't give a bloody fuck what most of his teammates thought about him.

Oliver wasn't paying the slightest bit of attention to them however, or everything Norman had implied at the end. After hearing Katie's name the world had seemed to recede around him, blackening into tunnel vision. The bustle of the locker room faded around him. Maybe it had just been nothing, a small problem before she got up in the air. "Bell," he said, licking his lips, "from Tutshill - what happened to her?" He didn't realize how desperate he sounded.

As he answered, Norman shot him an odd look. "She was actually one of the weirdest ones. They said her body seemed to be jerking around on her broom before she finally fell to the ground."

"Is she hurt?"

"Damned if I know. I just got the gossip from the Cannons keeper, a mate of mine. All these incidences, all with the games today. The Ministry has already started to. . . "

Oliver had tuned him out by that point. He hadn't even realized he had got to his feet, until they all looked expectantly at him - thinking he was about to make some kind of speech. Instead he only shook his head, still shocked, still taken aback. They had a game in just an hour, but how the bloody hell was he supposed to play when he didn't know if Katie was okay? Why the hell hadn't Norman payed closer attention?

He was still standing there when the manager Barnaby stuck his head in. "You've got an owl from that chaser for the Harpies - Spinnet, Oliver. Is there a bird in this league you're not on intimate acquaintance with?"

In that moment he knew, he just knew it was not going to be something normal. Oliver's mouth went dry.

"Might want to ensure Darwin's in uniform," Marcus was saying from behind him to Barnaby - naming United's reserve keeper.

"Why? Oliver's right here and he's looking perfectly fit. . . "

"I've got to go," Oliver said abruptly. Barnaby remained his usually clueless self, not understanding. He'd snatched the piece of paper from the other man's hands, and it didn't take him long to pick up on 'St. Mungo's' in the scribbled words.

Another player Barnaby might have demanded more of an explanation from, and he might have demanded one from Oliver too because this never happened. He never even missed a practice. However seeing the look in Oliver eyes he simply turned to head down the hall, bellowing Darwin's name in his raspy voice.

"Just fucking go already if you're going." Marcus got to his feet, "I might find Bell to be a complete pain in the arse, but fucking hell - that is just not on. Besides," he added, in the way of not caring in the slightest, "you're going to be bloody useless with your lovestruck arse worrying about her. We'll play better without you."

Oliver hadn't waited for the other man to finish. Halfway through the speech he was already striding out of the locker room to escape the anti-apparition wards that surrounded the stadium.

 

******************************

 

"Where is she?" Oliver demanded of a young little mediwitch who was helping a man with a tree sprouting from his head when he strode into the hospital. She started nervously, staring up with him with wide eyes, and he made a sound of frustration before moving on. The reception area was crowded with people, visitors and patients alike, all waiting attention. He ignored most of them, looking for another person in a white robe. The welcome witch seemed to be on her coffee break.

There was a manned desk further beyond the reception, and Oliver walked quickly over to it. "Where is she..." he began to ask, but the mediwitch there cut him off. She was twice his age, and a lot more seasoned.

"I'm not capable of legilmency," she said, "I'll need to know who she is."

Oliver bit back an annoyed reply. "Katie Bell. She was injured during one of the Quidditch matches and brought here."

The other woman's expression shut down. "I'm sorry sir, but we're not allowing visitors to the players. If you would just like to have a seat. . . "

"I'm not a ruddy psychotic fan," he replied forcefully, "I'm her friend."

"You might be," she said reasonably, "and I might be the Minister of Magic."

She didn't even back down when Oliver practically growled at her response. For a moment he half contemplated trying to get past her, but she had her hand tucked into the folds of her robe where her wand was concealed. "I wouldn't suggest it," she said, seeing where his eyes were headed, "I've got years of experience dealing with you sort. Listen sir, I'm not trying to be difficult - if she's your friend, I'm sure you're worried, but the Ministry has put that ward under the protection of hit wizards as it is. Only people listed as direct emergency contacts are being let in."

"I'm a player for Puddlemere. . . "

The woman shook her head, "That's not a magical pass, not here."

"Listen," Oliver said, placing his hands on the desk, "I need to know how she is - all I know is she's been brought in, severely hurt. I was owled by Alicia Spinnet, who's in there somehow. Check with her, she'll vouch I'm not some random crazy."

He would have preferred to force his way through, and he still considered it, but as he looked around he did realize there was an inordinate amount of hit wizards and other security personnel even in the waiting room, spread amongst the white robes of the mediwitches and wizards, and the green of the healers.

So, instead he waited, while the mediwitch behind the desk sent one of her assistants off for him. Every moment was a torture, not knowing how things stood with Katie. He'd half forgotten about the game, his focus entirely on her. Alicia's owl had only summoned him, but had not said much. He could feel a worry that seemed to wrap his entire body, and he hated the feeling. It had been like this, the first time he'd heard she'd been hurt at the battle at Hogwarts, but not as acute. Then he'd had something else to focus on too, his own grief and others, here there was just her. Whatever was passing between them mattered little, because he knew was he was had no idea what the hell he was going to do if she wasn't fine.

When the assistant came back, it was with a worried and haggard Alicia in tow.

"Come on," was all she said, sounding tired.

They were headed towards the lift, and Oliver motioned around the ground floor. "Shouldn't she be here?" It was the floor for artifact induced injuries, which had sounded like it applied from Norman.

Alicia shook her head, "They've got her on the fourth floor, though Merlin knows she could be here. There was a jinx on her broom; she broke multiple bones in the fall, but the worst damage came from the spell itself that knocked her out cold first." The normally more calm Alicia slapped the lift doors with her hand, "Hell, only her."

"So she's fine then?" Oliver's mouth was dry.

"She's alive," Alicia countered. "And they're grateful enough for that at the moment."

 

******************************

 

It was hard to be in the room, watching her lay in the bed. They'd petrified her so she couldn't do any damage to herself, as the Skele-gro started to work. Healers and mediwitches came and went, as well as potions experts from the hospital apothecary, trying to figure out what to give her to reverse the spell damage. Oliver watched from the corner of the room with Alicia and Angelina, his expression stoic, but feeling anything but.

"Merlin Alicia," Angelina said, her mouth having pinched when she saw Oliver come up, "it's not a bloody party."

Alicia shot her a look, "You know she'd want him to be here."

There was some kind of non-verbal communication going on between them in eyebrow raises and significant looks, but Oliver didn't much care. "Johnson," he said, not taking his eyes from Katie, "don't take this the wrong way, but fuck off. I'm not leaving."

She didn't try and throw him bodily from the hospital room, but he could tell she was tempted. She and Alicia were more protective of Katie than a bloody father would be, not that he had any idea why Angelina felt so much that she had to protect Katie from him. He was envious in that he wished he could have friends like that; he and Lee, and to an extent George were mates, but they weren't mates, not like that. He was jealous too, irrationally, because he wanted to be the one who was turned to when she was hurt - though he'd prefer her never be hurt. He wanted to be the bloody emergency contact, but most importantly he wanted to be the one she turned to as well.

One of the healers came over to speak to the girls, and when the older woman shot a pointed glance at Oliver, Angelina only gave a defeatist sigh and motioned for him to be included in the discussion.

"We're going to keep her asleep," the woman said, "it's the best thing for her right now. Her bones should be healed by morning, and fortunately that was the only physical damage. She wouldn't be able to tolerate that amount of Skele-gro in her system otherwise."

"What about the curse?" Alicia asked.

"It wasn't just a short-acting jolt," the healer said, "it's still acting through her system. We'll be able to counteract it eventually, it will just take time to find the counter-curse or potion, but in the meantime. . . it's best she's not awake." They could all read between the lines to what the woman wasn't saying, that it was a painful experience. She'd kept the explanations very simplistic, but none of them were experts, they just needed to know the outcome.

"She's going to be fine then?" Oliver asked.

"There are never any guarantees. However I believe the chances are excellent."

There was no way to describe the relief that slid through his body. It eclipsed anything else he'd ever felt before. The concern had nearly strangled him since the moment he'd heard about her incident in the Quidditch locker room, and it started to ease. Angelina and Alicia let out relieved sighs behind him, but Oliver felt his knees going weak. It could have ended so much differently - a different curse, a different landing on the fall.

Alicia asked the question he had never even thought about. "And Quidditch?"

"No way to tell," the other woman's voice was clipped, her priorities only for life and little more, "not yet." It hadn't been meant as a cavalier question, they all knew how Katie would feel if she couldn't play again. She nodded at them, ready to get back to leading the team treating Katie, "If you'll excuse me."

Oliver waited until the woman had slipped away. "What the fuck happened?"

"It's not just her, it's all over the League. . . " Alicia began.

"I know, I heard. How the hell could something like this happen though? There are wards around the playing area of the pitch to protect against spells being cast on the players."

"There is a team from the department looking into it," Angelina said, "they think it was likely something put on them before the game. Every person has been different though, what happened. Some brooms just failed, but in others like Katie's case there was a jinx that acted on them. It will get sorted out." Her expression suggested there was no doubt it would be, even if she had to do it herself. Still, high profile Quidditch players, no matter what their background - it wasn't going to be hard to get it looked into. "They've put hit wizards in the hospital for protection - her and the others, and they're not allowing casual visitors."

"Because of that fucking article," Oliver nearly punched the wall.

"For her at least," Alicia said, "maybe. Likely. It was intentional obviously anyway." There were the others who had been hurt, but who knew how much of that was for reasons that were fact or fiction. Right then, Oliver didn't care about them anyway, he cared about Katie and that was it.

They all stood around in silence then, simply watching her. She looked peaceful, but it was deceptive. She'd looked peaceful the first time too, with the cursed necklace, only to have been suffering extreme pain on the inside. She'd looked peaceful the second time, felled by the curse at the battle. Spells masked the truth so very well. Still, it would have been no better to see her writhing in agony. How could this happen so many times to one person?

"Did your game finish early?" Alicia asked, obviously needing to fill the silence, not able to focus on the worry.

Oliver shook his head, "Imagine it's still going on."

"More than likely cancelled," Angelina said, "they were planning on doing that for the rest of the matches - suspend them until a later date so they could check out everybody's brooms." Still, she looked at him assessingly, "Not that you knew that coming here I suppose."

Oliver wasn't sure why it mattered if he had or hadn't.

It was hours later, and three cups of tepid tea later, before a healer came to talk to them again. They'd been relegated to the visitor's tea room, the healing team not wanting to have them underfoot anymore. Oliver had taken to pacing, while the girls chatted quietly, all wanting to distract themselves.

In his case though, it was more than worry. He'd realized exactly how bloody stupid it had been, playing this game between them. He should have gone and pounded her bedroom door that night, tried and forced out what he'd meant to say. At least then she would have known what he really felt. He'd thought there would be time, they'd work their way back around to each other, but he who was more direct should have known better. She might have fucking died, which was the worst part in and of itself, but it made it worse that she'd have done so without things being resolved - without him really manning up.

"She's stable for the night," the healer said, drawing them aside, "the potion we've given her has started to work on the curse." They all breathed sighs of relief. "Now, if you all want to go home and we'll. . . ."

"No," the response was immediate and loud, as it was coming from three different directions.

The healer closed her eyes, and then sighed, "I suspected as much. You know she won't even be awake?" Her words didn't move any of them, and she hadn't expected them too, because she added, "Two visitors at a time, max, for the night. The mediwitch will hex anybody else she finds in there." After that she was off to the next patient, leaving them to debate it amongst themselves.

"I'm staying," Oliver said resolutely.

Angelina shot him a hard look, "I'm staying too."

They glared at each other, and each barely heard Alicia curse under her breath. "Listen, don't come to blows. You can both stay. I'll go home and sleep, and I'll be back with Lee in the morning to take the next shift." Not bothering to mask her voice, she added, "This is not a fucking competition to decide who cares about her the most."

They both backed off slightly, but another thought came to Alicia, "Where's George?"

That was enough to cause Angelina's expression to falter, before she schooled her face into an impenetrable mask of indifference. "Likely gone, I suppose, off on whatever idiotic scheme he had cooked up. I apparated over here as soon as I got the floo call, I couldn't wait. I could have petrified him, but. . . . " She hadn't gone to that extreme measure, not even she could cold cock him with spells or fists in cold blood, even if she believed it for his own good.

Alicia touched the other woman's arm in sympathy but said nothing, before leaving them to head to Katie's room while she went home.

Before they were allowed in they were inundated by the rules from the sour mediwitch who patrolled the ward, the first and foremost being that they weren't allowed to do a bit of magic in the room. There was no way to tell how it would affect the magic of the work they were doing - so, they weren't even to use sparks from their wand to call for help if needed. There was a button, of all things muggle, for them to press if something happened. It was standard operating procedure on the intensive care part of the ward. Oliver and Angelina took every word seriously, because they weren't going to do anything to risk affecting her recovery.

They both sat on either side of the bed when they were allowed in, not even so much as touching it because they were scared of how it might affect her. They both looked at her though, rather than each other.

"At least this is better than the first time," Angelina said, her voice hoarse, "even with the work Professor Snape had done, she was in such bad shape when she was in the hospital. No broken bones, but the curse. . . Merlin, that curse. You weren't there in the early days. They kept her levitated off the bed, because a touch of anything caused her more pain. Thinking caused her pain. You couldn't tell it because of all the spells, but the healers were merciless in pointing out what it was like for her. I could have killed Draco Malfoy, watching her there."

Oliver didn't think he could imagine anything worse than watching her like this. He'd never been that good at forgiveness when it came to the personal; he could feel the primal urge to hurt anybody who had hurt her, now and before.

"I didn't know at first she'd been injured at Hogwarts," he said, "not for the longest time. By the time I tried to seek her out at St. Mungo's, she was refusing to see me. And, that was almost worse then seeing her injured, not really knowing anything."

When he looked up from Katie, Angelina was looking directly at him.

"What?" Oliver demanded.

Angelina shook her head, "Nothing."

"You've never been shy about saying what you're thinking Johnson, don't start now."

Angelina hesitated, but responded frankly. "Sometimes I forget that deep down underneath you might actually be capable of caring about another human being. Not as much as Quidditch of course, but still." There was a bite to her tone as well as to her words.

When it came to Katie saying something much too similar, Oliver hadn't liked it. When it came to Angelina, he had no patience for it. Maybe underneath they really weren't friends at all, if she could think that. He wasn't that shallow, and he resented the implication that he was. He wasn't even sure what he had done to deserve it. He was a bit militant as a captain, but then again he'd heard the stories of what she'd turned into. He took his job seriously, and he loved it, but so did most - including her.

"Where is that coming from?" Oliver demanded.

Rather than answering him directly, she only shook her head. "You're not good enough for her."

"Angelina you've been on my case well before I ever fancied Katie in the slightest," Oliver said, "but you're right, I'm not."

"As long as we're agreed on that."

He wanted to push and prod at it still. "Are you the one who's been convincing her of all that then? That I'm not capable of being in a proper relationship with her, and she shouldn't even try."

She shot him a look, "If you believe Katie doesn't know her own mind, you really shouldn't be trying to get in her knickers. I've held off expressing my reservations for years, and the one time I did she told me to sod off. Anything she had against you, it's from her and her alone."

Oliver felt himself intrigued by the 'years' comment, but at the same time if he was honest with himself he knew it wasn't a shock to hear it. On some level, for years, he'd known Katie had had a bit of a thing for him, especially back at the beginning. But she'd never acknowledged it, so he hadn't either. It made him feel like a bit of a heel, for not noticing her in that way sooner, but better it was now when they were both ready for it - or at least, when he hoped they were both ready for it. He still didn't really know what was there on her part, because he'd never eloquently acknowledged what was there on his.

"You can't play her protector forever," Oliver said finally.

"I can try."

"You realize if she heard you say that she'd never speak to you again," he said, reasonably.

"She'd definitely never agree to shag you if you gave into that urge to say what you've wanted to say since you brought it up, that you want to play the role of her protector," Angelina shot back.

"That sounds like something out of a bad Wicked Witch novel," Oliver said, making a face.

A snort of inadvertent laughter escaped Angelina before she could help herself. It was as if she didn't want to find Oliver amusing. The thing was though, this aside, they were friends. Even if occasionally that fact got forgotten. He still didn't quite get where her animosity when it came to him and Katie came from, but he could respect where she was coming from - at least to an extent. She was guilty of what he was too though occasionally, arrogance when it came to thinking they knew what was best for Katie.

He still would maintain she was a bloody little idiot when it came to the perception of her during the war, especially as it had led to this, but he truly could see her for the woman she was beyond that.

They all had their buttons though, Merlin knew he did. That was just hers.

"You hurt her I'll kill you," Angelina said finally.

"I hurt her, she'll kill me" Oliver countered. "Besides, she basically told me to sod off too when I tried to tell her about my. . . feelings. It's all academic."

"Merlin Oliver, if you said 'feelings' in that kind of tone, no wonder."

For a moment he almost confided in Angelina, because the tender emotions weren't the sort of thing one talked about with Lee or George, or Merlin help him - Marcus Flint. And, considering she was at least some semblance of a bird she might be able to give advice. Then again, he remembered just in time exactly how much she didn't approve. He also realized she probably knew the story of it already, because they told each other everything, maybe she'd even. . .who knew, mocked it with Katie, behind his back. He really was an island when it came to figuring out this potential relationship stuff he'd managed to bugger up.

His gaze drifted back to Katie, willing her to wake up soon.

"She's going to be fine," Angelina said quietly, "the girl has nine lives, I swear."

"Aren't I supposed to be reassuring you?"

She shook her head. "You look like you need it one hell of a lot more."

 

******************************

 

Oliver woke in the morning violently needing a piss, and with a neck so sore he was sure it was stuck sideways.

Looking across the bed at Angelina he could see her asleep in the rickety hospital chairs, contorted in an uncomfortable position. They'd passed the night there without moving, the two of them, waking every hour when a mediwitch slipped in to run a diagnostic spell to ensure no new problems had cropped up. Oliver felt every muscle in his body protest as he straightened slowly, his form remembering it wasn't meant to bend in those positions.

Katie looked. . . the same. He didn't know if that was a good thing, or a bad thing, but at least no healers had come rushing in over the course of the night.

He didn't really want to leave her side, the fact that Alicia was due to come back soon non- withstanding, but nature called quite persistently and Oliver slipped into the hall as quietly as he could in search of the loo. Coming out of the room though, he ran smack dab into another figure who had been loitering outside the entrance.

George.

The other man didn't look quite as if he knew whether or not he wanted to be there, like he might bolt at any minute, but he was there all the same. There was no attempt to go in the room; he stood propped outside the door,

"Is she okay?" He asked, while Oliver stared at him in surprise.

He recovered quickly though. "She's. . . alive. They think she's going to make a full recovery, but she's unconscious yet."

George nodded. "Good. That's good."

Neither of them said anything more, still standing in front of her room. The bustle of the hospital continued around them, the injuries and illness at St. Mungo's not respecting early or late hours. More than a few mediwitches and healers gave George more than a passing glance as they walked by; Oliver wasn't sure if it was because of the missing ear, or because of who he was, but George didn't pay them any mind.

Neither of them noticed Angelina standing right at the door. She must have awakened the moment Oliver tried to slip out.

"You stayed," she said quietly. There was a flash of relief across her face that came and went quickly.

George nodded, "I did. It's just going to be for Christmas, mind. Until Katie recovers, and I get my bloody jumper, and the Weasleys and company drive me to being so miserable I want to kill myself." At Angelina's and Oliver's looks he gave a ghost of a smile, "What, to soon to be joking in that way?"

It surprised George and Oliver both when Angelina walked up to George, wrapping her arms around him in a tight hug. It wasn't that she didn't do physical affection, she did - she was better than Katie at that sort of thing, but it was always the breezy casual sort. She never tended to show the weakness of true emotion either, especially not in front of the blokes - and it was even more surprising right then, considering the way the months had gone. "Don't say anything," she said in an almost threatening tone, her voice muffled over George's shoulder, "just. . . don't' say anything. Let me pretend for just a minute."

"I'm never going to be Fred," he said quietly, "you can't pretend that. . . "

"I said not a word, you prat," Angelina snapped, "and that's not what I meant. Don't ever think I'm going to want that. Let me pretend, just for a moment, that I've managed to save you from your idiotic self."

"It's not just this easy."

She gave a partially broken laugh, "You think this has all been easy?" The hardship of searching him down, of forcing him physically back, of taking care of whatever problems he'd got himself into - and of the emotional turmoil he kept trying to put her through, were all evident in her voice.

For a moment George hesitated, his arms limp in her embrace, but then he wrapped them around her - holding her tight.

Oliver wasn't sure, but he was fairly sure he murmured a 'thank you' against her hair.

He slipped off to the loo, leaving them as alone as they could be in a St. Mungo's hallway. When he came back, George had gone, and Angelina had taken her place back in the room again. She looked up when he arrived, and Oliver studiously tried to pretend like the ten minutes before simply hadn't happened. She seemed to appreciate it, him ignoring her slip into being a little more human.

"You should go home and shower," he said.

"Is that your way of telling me I stink?"

"Hell, no. It's just, this could be a very long time yet. Wasn't it going to be a fact too that you were going to get sacked if you missed work any longer?"

Angelina hesitated. "If she needs me, I'm here. Sod the Ministry, they'll take me back eventually." It was obvious she didn't want to leave, and Oliver could understand that. It wasn't about the pissing match of territory with Katie, it was the concern. Still, he knew too what she'd admitted too, that her position was a little precarious because of her sojourns for George - at a time when not even the most senior aurors were being given leave.

"Go," he said. "For once in your bloody life, you do not have to be the be all and end all for everybody. I'm here, and I'm not leaving for a million galleons. I'll owl you if anything comes up. Go, make sure that somebody competent is on the investigation."

She smiled lightly, "Arrogant arse."

He smiled back, "Takes one to know one."

"Mature Oliver, very mature."

Still though, Angelina rose to leave. Lightly she rested her hand on Katie's shoulder, as if to reassure herself she was alive and there, before gathering what little things she had with her and heading out the door. It was almost a relief to have her gone, because Oliver could sit there and stare and worry uninterrupted, and he could harass the mediwitches and healers the way he wanted to every time they came in the room.

All he did for the moment though was reach out his hand, linking her pinky finger with his, scared to do more even a day later.

For hours he sat there with her. Alicia came, with Lee in tow, though he had to go wait in the tea room because Oliver refused to leave; both of them had given him a look, but had realized he wasn't going to budge. The few hours of sleep in the chair had been enough to do him, and he'd cast bloody freshening charms if he had to, even if they never worked quite as well when it came to covering odours - no matter what pubescent boys at Hogwarts seemed to think. They rotated in and out, she and Lee, with tea and snacks.

"We should owl her family," Oliver had said, when the three of them had gathered out in the hall so they could talk - with eyes and ears attuned to the room behind them.

"It's over every paper, and the wireless too," Alicia pointed out reasonably, "there is no way they won't have heard." It was implied they could be here, if they wanted to be.

Oliver pursed his lips, but didn't say anything else. It was his first instinct, to call for family, because a country or a continent away his mum and his sisters would come running if he so much as stubbed his toe. It was annoying in it's own way, but he took for granted that security - and loved them for it. He'd endured lecture after lecture from the concerned females about his risks during the last year, but he suffered through them because each one was laced with hugs and constant touching from them - as if to reassure themselves he was there and fine.

Right then, Katie didn't exactly have that. Not from blood relatives anyway.

Lee didn't argue. It was never his first instinct either, to call for family - no matter who might have been laying in the hospital bed. Mostly because he didn't have one, having been orphaned at a young age. He was used to the people caring for you being the ones you chose to let into your life, not the ones you were forced too.

When Oliver headed back in, Lee went to grab some snacks from the tea room, and Alicia went to find a mediwitch who could tell her where Katie's personal possessions had been taken too - outside of her broom that had been confiscated by the hit wizards, the rest would be somewhere in the hospital. The necklace she wore, her one concession to jewelry - things like that.

It was sitting there, half falling asleep, that Oliver felt Katie's finger twitch against his.

He started, even as her eyes fluttered open.

"You're awake," he stated the obvious, leaning further over her as she came more into awareness. There was a lot he was going to say, but already his finger was pressing frantically on the button to call for the healing staff, knowing that making sure she was fine took first priority.

He got up to go try and call verbally for somebody, but Katie grasped his wrist weakly, stilling him immediately.

Despite the fact her eyes were open, Katie's thoughts were muddle and unclear - slow to process. She felt like she was swimming in murky water that she couldn't maker her way through. Her limbs ached, but they were there - and it was nothing in comparison to the agony that formed her last memory. It had been like a million knives had pierced every inch of her body, tearing her apart from the inside out. She'd been regrettably conscious even as she'd tumbled off her broom to the ground.

Her broom.

She reached out for Oliver's hand even as he started to call for a mediwitch, trying to keep him from leaving - having to tell him. "My...broom," she tried to say, her voice hoarse. "It. . .. " a coughing fit interrupted the rest.

"We know that somebody from the crowd must have. . . " Oliver began.

She shook her head, not having the energy to talk over him, and he cut off on his own. His hand was warm on hers, reassuring, and she took solace in it.

"Gregory," she managed to get out the name, "day before the game. . . " Breathing heavily, she couldn't quite finish.

There was no mistaking the fact that Oliver understood from the darkening expression on his face. His hand had tightened on hers almost painfully, until her wince made him realize what he was doing. Immediately concerned, he released her entirely, and she regretted the loss. "'I'll tell the hit wizards," he said, "but you don't need to worry about that. You're going to be fine, don't strain yourself and. . . "

He was cut off by the arrival of a mediwitch and healer apparating in beside them, apparently impervious to the wards that limited the act in the hospital. They seemed annoyed to realize his urgency in summoning them was for her awakening rather than an immediate emergency. "What took so long?" Oliver was demanding.

A healer with purple hair ignored him, bending down to Katie. He waved his wand a few times with muttered spells, and palpated her limbs with his hands. "How do you feel?" The healer asked quietly, even as he straightened, tucking his wand away again.

"Sore," Katie got out, "hard. . . to talk."

The man, for all his punk appearance, had a gentle smile. "There's bound to be pain any time you manage to crush a high percentage of bones in your body beyond easy repair. They have, however, healed properly with the Skele-gro we gave you. The shortness of breath is from the potion we gave you to counteract the curse, it should fade within a few hours as we lower the dose in your system." He gave her a gentle pat on the hand, "To sum it up more simply, you're going to be fine. Eventually. Just no getting on a broom, or anything much but lazing around, for awhile yet."

"Ever?" Katie managed to ask, motioning to indicate she meant the part about the broom.

The healer didn't give false promises. "Maybe, at least when that professional level we can't be sure. Your body has taken quite a hit, so to speak. It's going to take awhile to see if you're going to be able to get it back to the same strength again." Katie closed her eyes, knowing if it was a matter of determination, she would get back to full strength within a bloody month if it killed her - she'd done it before, under worse circumstances, and she'd do it again. She was tired, just so bloody tired of this. A body wasn't meant to take that much bad magic, a person wasn't meant to see the inside of St. Mungo's so many times either.

They ran a few more diagnostic spells, and answered her questions, explaining exactly what had happened - both at the pitch, and to her body. The whole time, Katie could see Oliver glowering out of the corner of her sight, never leaving her bedside. She wasn't quite sure why he had his knickers in so much of a twist, considering the healer and mediwitch seemed perfectly nice and knowledgeable. She was the one who was should be upset, considering that she'd nearly died. Again. Even as she listened to the healer talk, part of her wondered what he was doing there.

They left her then, promising a proper shower once she'd rested, and strict instructions to not move herself from the bed or exert herself at all.

"Katie, I have. . . " Oliver began, dropping down to chair beside her bed.

Whatever he had been going to say however was cut off by the arrival of Alicia and Lee, the former rambling in concerned happiness, fluffing pillows and hugging her repeatedly - wanting to know everything the healing team had said, and telling her stay perfectly still even as she jostled Katie with tight embraces.

She took comfort in the love and concern, but her gaze had drifted to Oliver, wondering what he had been going to say.

 

******************************

 

The time in the hospital passed slowly. Incredibly slowly.

Katie was never alone, and she loved her friends for it, but she wanted to be back in her own flat. She wanted to be back in her own bed. Most of all she wanted to be back in her own bloody pyjamas even, because she was kept in the hospital robes all day long. Mostly, she wanted to be left with her own concern over her recovery, because it wasn't going as smooth as she would have liked. The leg that had given her the problems from the previous curse was having the hardest time; they'd actually vanished the bones entirely, and given her Skele-gro once more, but like the first time it wasn't the bone that was the problem. It was something in her neural system, fried from the curses. She could barely walk around the room.

Alicia was ever cheerful, pointing out that one didn't need one's leg to fly, but they all knew that for Quidditch it would matter. She knew from how things had been, it had been hard enough to fly - having to pay conscious attention to keep her leg relaxed, not tensing against pain, because it through the balance off. Still, she wasn't going to fret about it, not yet - she'd do whatever it took even if it involved bloody well transplanting the thing. That didn't mean however she enjoyed being faced with very able bodied, and all too positive people, in a never ending parade.

It was that for sure though, a never ending parade. The girls, Oliver, Lee, even George - they all took turns being there, never leaving her alone. Even Mr. and Mrs. Weasley had stopped by; the latter bringing a blanket in case she got cold, tucking it around her despite her protests and fussing with the care they were taking of her. Katie knew Molly Weasley more from the stories of her children rather than personally, but the woman was the bundle of motherly energy she'd always pictured. She and George's father had visited her the first time too, after the cursed necklace, just because she was a mate of the twins.

She'd been admonished to stay in bed by everybody around her, but the first moment she was left alone Katie forced herself to her feet.

Every step was torture, and she could barely bear the weight on her problematic leg, though she forced herself to try. No pain, no gain. The old adage had to hold true, that torturing herself was going to pay off. She was walking slower than any wizened witch, grimacing with each movement.

"Bloody hell," she heard the curse from the door.

Katie turned, embarrassed to find Oliver standing there watching her. She didn't much like it when he came around, because she knew she looked like shite. Also, because she was half falling apart, a broken doll they were putting back together again. Why that bothered her so much, to show the weakness in front of him, she didn't know - but she felt it all the same. "I've got to," she said, lurching her left leg forward on a grimace, "work it out. It's not going to get better otherwise. I've got to learn to make the pain bearable."

"That's what physical therapy is for you ninny," Oliver glared daggers at her as he walked over, "with a trained professional who knows the limits of your body."

There was hypocrisy in his statement. He would never be able to lie around idle, when he could be making himself better. He would never trust his recovery to anybody but himself either, because they would never push him as hard as he needed to be pushed. She was the same way, and she wasn't going to apologize for it. It was what had got her back to school after the cursed necklace, and back to Quidditch after the battle. She needed to push herself.

"Hell," she swore, as Oliver picked her up, before gently depositing her back in the bed. "What do you think you're doing?"

"Torture yourself when I'm not here to watch," he said grimly, sitting in the chair beside the bed.

Katie shot him a look, but settled herself back into the pillows. She knew, she knew she was more than a Quidditch player, and she would find a way to survive if she couldn't play again - or at least she was trying to believe that. She was adaptable to circumstance, she always had been. That didn't mean that she liked the idea, that didn't mean that she wanted to picture that. It caused a gut clenching ball of stress she couldn't ignore. She wanted to play, if nothing else, and she was going to do whatever she could to bring it about.

Trying not to focus on that, she focused on Oliver instead.

He was still glowering at her, upset that she was putting herself through her paces. She thought he might have been the most encouraging, trying to push her, instead he was more protective than a mother hen - not wanting her to even fetch a bloody glass of water for herself. Alicia had dropped, so carefully that it was impossible for Katie not to notice the practiced ease, into a few conversations that he had been by her side the whole time she was in the hospital, skipping a Quidditch match to do so - refusing to leave. They'd never had a moment alone, but Katie didn't know what she would have said to him even if they had. He was a protective bloke, always had been, not convinced that others could do anything right - there was likely little more to it than that.

"Your face will freeze that way," she said pointedly at his scowl, annoyed with him for confusing her, and annoyed with her subconscious for trying to read more into his actions.

His expression immediately dropped. "I just don't like you being in pain, allright?"

Before she could try and make any more sense of that, they were interrupted - which was happening often and repeatedly. There were upsides and downsides to having a very loyal group of friends. This time Katie wasn't entirely sure whether she was glad or not of the distraction from having a proper and meaningful conversation with Oliver. It very well might be best if they didn't get the chance.

Regardless, she forced a smile onto her face when Lee handed over the chocolate frog cards he'd brought for her.

 

******************************

 

"You need somebody to stay with you," the healer was saying, as they ran their final diagnostic spells on Katie. "For the next few days. We've weaned you off the potion, but you might be a little weak still. I don't want you passing out on your kitchen floor with nobody noticing." He looked at her reprovingly, "I told you as much two days ago; you were supposed to get that arranged."

Katie flushed slightly, but didn't respond, tugging her jumper back down when they were finished waving her wands. She'd been in St. Mungo's for just over a week, her shortest stay in the place, but she'd thought and almost hoped she was going to be there until Christmas. She didn't really fancy the emptiness flat she had to go back home to, and she wasn't going to ask anybody to give up their holiday for her sake. She was fine, save the continuing problems with her leg. She wasn't going to collapse face first on the bloody floor; besides, she had great plans that involved chocolate and lounging on the sofa - that didn't require much exertion.

The girls looked her with annoyance, while Oliver just rolled his eyes at the fact she hadn't consulted any of them. Lee was off at work, unable to put it off entirely to stay around the hospital.

"My family will understand," Angelina was already saying, but Oliver cut her off.

"I'm taking her home," he said, his tone brooking no refusal.

Not that ever actually stopped protestations. "I've got a bag for overnights in my locker at the Ministry," Angelina continued, "I'll just go get it and. . . "

It was Alicia who cut her off though, in a calm but firm voice. "Oliver will take her home," she said serenely, arranging Katie's things that she'd accumulated from well wishers into her sack. "You only get about a day off work Angelina, and you wouldn't want to miss the first Christmas with that cute little nephew of yours. Lee's coming home with me for the hols, to finally meet the family, so I'm out. It just makes sense Oliver stays with her."

"Oliver has family too," Angelina's tone was bemused.

"He's taking her home," Alicia said more firmly, her stare pointed at Angelina. The two of them seemed to communicate silently while Katie watched. She wasn't used to being on the outside of that, and confused by it. Eventually they broke their glare, and Angelina only nodded sharply while Alicia began to smile more easily again - shoving some of the flowers into the bag as well, after charming them against squishing. She really had no idea why the other woman was so dead set on it, outside of her infernal matchmaking tendencies. Didn't she get by this point it was just going to be awkward to have Oliver back in her flat?

"I'm fine," she insisted, glaring daggers at the healer, "he's just overly cautious."

"Oliver is taking you home," this time Alicia turned her stare on Katie, and she was forced to bend into submission as well.

Angelina looked at Oliver and sighed, before turning her attention to Katie. "There's going to be hit wizards stationed around your building," she said, "a few, just in case. They picked up that prat from your team, but he was part of a larger organization; a new one, Wizarding Equality. For all it's a benign name they're one of those fanatic organizations, employing violent measures against what they see as pureblooded supremacy."

"I'm a Quidditch player. . . " Katie began in protest.

"Who almost fucking died at their hands," Angelina said harshly. "Take the protection, or I'm moving into your flat and never leaving."

There was no more argument, because Katie didn't really want to argue. It wasn't so easy to be understanding this time. It did seem extreme to her, that she would warrant any kind of official protection when there were more important. . . well, central, people in the wizarding world - but her mindset had started to change from what it had been after the vandalism at her flat. There was no doubt that that organization, or one like them, had been responsible for that as well. So instead of insisting that she was fine, that nothing really had happened, Katie only nodded and started to push herself out of the bed, ready to go home. St. Mungo's might have held it's appeal to be around people, but she hated the place. If she never saw the inside of the place again it would be too soon.

Oliver was there as she stood, supporting her as she stood, and Katie gently but firmly pulled her arm away.

"We've got to put you into a wheelchair to head to the front door," the mediwitch said, "policy. I'll charm it to take you straight there."

Angelina winced. "You might want to find another way out. There are members of the Daily Prophet and Quidditch Weekly, and a multitude of other publications camped out in the reception area. They've been there since you lot were brought in here; though you haven't seen most of the others since most are on the first floor."

In the end, hospital policy was bent, Oliver and Katie being let out the service entrance - her bag in hand.

When he reached his arm around her waist to side-along them to her building, Katie flinched - but settled herself as he only looked on impassively. She couldn't afford to be squeamish about personal contact, considering she was still weak enough she ran a high risk of splinching herself in the process. Oliver pondered for a moment, then actually picked her up in his arms, apparating them before she could protest.

When they stumbled out of apparition he almost dropped her, but held steady rather than put her down.

"This is ridiculous," Katie said, reaching for her wand to unlock the door as they headed up the stairs to her flat, "I have two legs of my own. . . "

"But not perfectly serviceable ones. Humour me Bell, if for no other reason than I don't want this to take all afternoon."

It was tempting to try and struggle out of his arms, but that would solve nothing - and it was just up the stairs. Instead Katie tried a different tack as he carried her up, struggling only minimally under her weight. "You should apparate out as soon as you dump me on the nearest available flat surface," she said, "your mum and sisters will be expecting you home, and I plan on doing nothing more strenuous than sleeping for the next week."

"Right," Oliver snorted, as they got up the last step, "and I'm Merlin's son. You'll be up and about trying out your leg before I'm much out the door. I'm staying Katie, so shut it."

She wasn't one to analyze every moment, every action, but still Katie was feeling distinctly uncomfortable with his words. She'd never given him a fair shake, when it came to priorities. She still didn't believe it really, that he thought of her as more than anything but a friend underneath, but he was an amazing friend. He'd skipped a match to come see her, and now he was staying with her rather than spending the hols with his family - because, at least according to the healers, she needed somebody and there were no other ideal options.

After her muttered spell, Oliver maneuvered the door open. He deposited her bag by the door, and her on the sofa, before standing over her with his hands on his hips.

"Do not move," he said threateningly. "Or I will kick your stubborn little arse."

Katie rolled her eyes, but settled back, moving into a more comfortable position. "I've always wanted my own slave, I suppose I can adjust for a bit."

She expected him to tend to things around the flat, to maybe take off for a bit to get his own things. Instead, Oliver sat down on the coffee table in front of her, the wood creaking beneath him. His hands he kept to himself, but he leaned towards her. "Listen," he said, "I've got to get this out now. I've wanted to for days now, but every time Alicia would come in to fuss and poke over you, or Angelina would come in and shove me out -George would come in with sneezing blooms, or Lee would come in with another game of exploding snap to force on you. And, much as they sometimes seem to think it, our lives and feelings are not entirely their business." He gave a crooked smile at that. It was true though, the way the days in the hospital had been, right at the moment there was still the thought that one of them - or a mediwitch, or a healer, would come in at any moment.

"I mucked it up," he said firmly, still sitting there with hands clasped, though he didn't look away from her, "that night, here at your flat. I'm not good with romance, and I'm not good with feelings. I can lecture for an hour on a single Quidditch play, but I'm obviously shit at finding the right words when it comes to relationships."

"When I heard you were hurt, when I didn't know if you were going to recover, it was fucking horrible - I almost went mad from the worry. It made me realize too that I had to tell you what I meant, then the quaffle's in your hands. I care about you Katie, a lot, and more than as a friend. I want to snog you, shag you, hug you, date you - you get the idea. You frustrate me, annoy me, drive me out of my bloody mind - but I wouldn't have it any other way. It's not about convenience, it's not because you get Quidditch, it's because you are you. My life isn't going to be about proving it to you, you're going to have to take it on faith, but there is more to my life than the sport. It was that way before you, and it will be that way with you in it a bit more centrally. I'm arrogant, but I'm not a completely controlling arse and you'd know it if you'd just stop to think. I'm not ever going to be one of those poncy blokes who gives you poetry and eloquent words, but I. . .fancy you, in that incredibly fucking terrifying way I've never exactly felt before."

He looked at her intently. He might not have chosen the words easily, but he didn't shy away from saying them - he never shied away from anything. "With your bloody luck, somebody is going to curse your hairbrush or something next, so I had to get all this out there before that." Oliver said the words seriously, obviously not meaning them entirely in jest.

"I can get down on my knees," he added, "if I need to prove the 'wanting desperately' part, but I'd rather prove it a more pleasurable way."

In a different set of circumstances Katie would have grinned at that, and then jokingly insisted that he get down and beg, but instead she sat there staring at him. With this, like this, it wasn't a joke. "You talk a good game," she said weakly, not pulling her hand from his.

"It's not a game to me, Katie," Oliver replied quietly. "It's never going to be. It's not fair to prejudge me based on my locker room attitude."

There had never been any question of her believing that - that it was a game to him, not really, even when she'd doubted the rest. She'd fancied him since she was eleven years old, but the emotion had evolved, deepened - and changed drastically over time. It meant something more now, which was why she hadn't been able to be satisfied with his proposal from before. This time, they were words, just words, but Oliver meant them sincerely. It wasn't fair to prejudge him though, to not take the chance.

Especially when she wanted desperately to give them a chance. The rest seemed to fall by the wayside, looking into his eyes.

"I've always wanted to see you down on your knees," Katie said finally, after a few moments.

Oliver narrowed his eyes, but lowered himself off the coffee table. She couldn't help but snicker as he got down on one knee, hands in a pleading stance. He lasted for about the promised three seconds before he shoved himself back to a sitting position, but it was enough. "Merlin," she half laughed, "but I like you Oliver. A lot. And not just because you've been my mate for years, and you know and like me still, and not just because you're fit." To her, that was almost a declaration of love, because she wasn't good with expressing sentiment. "I think you better just snog me already before I change my mind."

"Is that you saying that you fancy me too?" Oliver prompted, looking for the words.

Katie flushed slightly. "Yes, I suppose. Though not as much as you fancy me, you understand."

"If you're not going to take this seriously. . . "

Instantly, Katie was contrite. It was her habit though, because she didn't want to appear needy. She'd always feigned friendly indifference with him, even when she'd contemplated him as something more than friendly, because she didn't want him to know. She never would have been the first one to initiate anything, physically or otherwise, because she didn't want to give him the upper hand entirely. It wasn't fair though, to leave him as the only one sticking his neck out emotionally. It wasn't exactly a good basis for starting something either.

"I've fancied you for longer than I'm comfortable with," Katie said quietly, "and now I like you too. It's part of why it was hard, thinking you wanted me for any reason less than that, beyond basic self respect."

They would probably talk themselves into being annoyed with each other if they tried to dissect it, their feelings and them. They were both people of action more than words. Katie leaned forward, hesitantly, from the sofa. Slowly, she kissed him - chaste as a twelve year old girl, letting her hand slip up to cup his face. For a moment Oliver didn't respond, then his mouth moved under hers - still slowly, still gently, but deepening the kiss. In that instant Katie was able to forget that she was just back from the hospital, still generally disliked - and now more than ever linked with some other less than reputable sorts, able to forget that she had a bum leg and a million problems; all she could focus on was Oliver, and the way a single kiss was thrilling her down to her very toes.

It was easy to forget everything else too when his hands slid to her body, and he shifted over her, pressing her back against the couch. It was awkward and uncomfortable, but Katie didn't really care.

"I'm hurting you," he muttered, pulling back slightly, "I am so probably hurting you right now."

Katie kept her hands on his shoulders. "I have a screwed up leg. I'm not a bloody invalid."

A spring pressed into her back, and a cushion shifted against her hip, but Katie didn't notice. Grinning, she slid her hand to press against the front of his trousers, leaning up to kiss him again. "Fucking hell," Oliver said, his breath catching against her lips, "I didn't realize we were going there so soon."

Her hand slid back instantly. Katie refused to be cowed, used to feel like a slag, but at the same time couldn't help it. Oliver scowled. "I did it again, didn't I, managed to say the wrong bloody thing. I just thought, we just snogged for the first time thirty seconds ago, I thought we'd need a little more time to. . . ."

Katie raised her eyebrows, "What? Get to know each other?"

The last almost ten years had been foreplay to this moment. At the same time, Katie felt herself easing away from getting them to shag on the couch. She wanted him, but she wanted it to be right even more. It was just, it was what one did wasn't it - in an adult relationship. Sex. It wasn't like it had been a clinical decision, or one based on obligation; she'd never really been inclined to shag somebody before, except in the hypothetical and now that she wanted it, now that she had that somebody, she didn't want to wait. She just apparently wasn't going about it quite right.

"No," Oliver was saying, "I mean, Merlin do I want to sleep with you Katie. I just thought. . . "

It would be different with her. She understood that. He'd dated Gwenog Jones, who was both mature and sexual; and also, if she were being bitchy, a bit of a slag. At the same time that didn't mean that Katie who seemed the exact opposite, and was in some ways, wanted to play the role of vestal virgin. She wasn't entirely comfortable though, initiating things properly.

"I suppose," she licked her lips. "It's become apparently obvious I've never exactly done this before."

She expected it to be a big revelation, and one she'd been nervous to make because it was hard to just bring up that sort of thing out of the blue. It wasn't like she was entirely moral, and it wasn't like no bloke ever wanted to, but she'd just never really been inclined up to this point. Instead of Oliver being taken aback though, he just shrugged, "I assumed."

Her eyes narrowed, "Because I'm what? Some kind of troll that only. . . ."

"Katie," Oliver rolled his eyes, "it's simple math. You've never had a serious boyfriend in your close to twenty years, and no, that prat Holden Norwin you said you went to the yule ball with doesn't count. You're not a slag. Therefore, it was more than likely you hadn't had sex before."

Their conversation had quickly gone downhill. The romance of the moment was quickly being lost. It was her fault as much as anything, but Katie only sighed, shoving Oliver back and sitting more upright on the sofa.

"Was that my cue to reassure you on your beauty?" Oliver sighed, leaning back. "Did I miss it?"

She might have almost laughed at how ridiculous it was. Instead, she only shook her head ruefully, grabbing his shirt and burrowing her forehead against his chest in frustration before releasing him. Oliver, who was arrogant and confident in everything else, was worried about being dense when it came to this. She who liked to pretend at arrogance at least, was dense when it came to this. "No," she said firmly, "not at all. And stop worrying. I plan to do the same. I'm used to you Oliver, and like you said, I don't expect the poncy words from you - don't even want them. This will work. . . as it works. "

On it's own timeline too.

This time when she kissed him, it was as innocent as before.

 

******************************

 

Katie rested in the tub, the warm water still around her. It was a relief after cleansing charms at the hospital, which didn't feel half as refreshing. She would have tried to prove her self reliancy in the shower, but even if standing for long periods of time hadn't been uncomfortable, she relished the chance to relax and soak. She still felt inordinately stiff, a result of the Skele-gro.

She also had to wonder what the hell Oliver was doing outside in her flat. He'd practically shoved her into the bathroom when she'd mentioned she'd like to get clean.

When the water finally cooled, Katie regretfully sighed and dunked her head one last time before getting out of the tub - accioing her towel too her. As she stood drying herself off, and muttering charms to take care of her dripping hair, she caught sight of her reflection in the mirror. Her hands slowing, she dropped the towel, standing there naked as she looked - taking in her appearance critically.

She looked tired and gaunt, her cheekbones highly emphasized - with shadows under her eyes and limp falling hair, no matter how clean she got it. Her body was skin and bones, but that had always been the case - it was just worse with being incapacitated and hurt. She watched as her hand slid up to her torso, the ribs too pronounced under her fingers. Her skin was pale, as if she'd never seen the sun.

Sighing, Katie dropped her hands and averted her eyes. She might want to shag Oliver, but until she got back into fighting shape - well, not even she could muster any enthusiasm for the sight that the mirror had shown.

When she finished dressing and stepped out into the hallways, she could hear Oliver humming Quidditch fight songs in the living room. For a moment she contemplated leaving him to his own devices while she took a nap, but she felt like she'd been sleeping for weeks; more time doing so held little appeal for all it might be 'restorative'. Instead she turned and headed down the very short hallway, deciding to see if they should try take-away for dinner considering she hadn't been to the market in two weeks. Coming across the living room though she started in surprise, pausing rather than walking by - seeing Oliver hanging a garland, of all bloody things over the mantle.

"What?" The question was simple and non specific, as she looked around the room.

He'd gone through a large effort; there was a tree in the corner of the room - small, but more than she'd had before, with a few ornaments decorating it. Garlands graced the ledges of the room, and wreaths with candles sat on every available flat surface. Sprigs of mistletoe were charmed to hang, and there was a light dusting of what she assumed was supposed to be simulated frost around the room. It was more simplistic then what there had been at the Quidditch ball, but Katie found it all the more charming. Oliver looked surprised when she walked in, but waved his wand quickly, setting the candles alight - and muttering a few charms to light something he'd affixed to the tree.

"I thought you'd be in there longer," he said.

"Why?" Her next question wasn't more articulate at the first.

Oliver had stopped looking uncomfortable. "Your flat was downright sad," he said, "considering it's almost fucking Christmas Eve. And, I know, you were planning on ignoring the holiday since this is the first time you're spending it without family, but that's bloody ridiculous. You never had any bloody fun before with them anyway." That was putting it simplistically; the parties, she'd hated those. The family part. . . they did care about her, in their own way, but it had never been much of a Christmas. Not the way it was supposed to be anyway. Not the way it was in books, or the way it was for other families.

"You're trying to bully me into the Christmas spirit?"

"If I have to."

She might have poked fun; reminding him how much he'd scoffed at Angelina's underlying belief that being home for Christmas would mean something more than any other day for George - that would help him heal in some way. This certainly seemed to belie whatever indifference he'd tried to show. She might have poked fun, but with her living room looking like a perfect Christmas scene, it was hard to not to get caught up in it a little bit. For a moment she thought of how it might have been, her here alone with nothing but the aforementioned chocolate, and she couldn't help but feel something at the difference. The candlelight was the only illumination in the room by then, dancing across his face as he looked down, and Katie couldn't help but smile up at him.

"Besides," Oliver said, stepping closer to her, "I've heard that birds like candles. And, I've decided, I'm going to do something right when it comes to you."

As his hands slid to rest on her hips, Katie forgot how to breathe.

This was what had been missing from the moment before, the romance. She'd always thought she didn't need it, didn't want it - and she didn't. Not in the traditional sense of the candlelight, or the roses, or even this decoration that he'd done. She needed it in the most basic sense of the word - the feeling that came over her now when she was around him. Before she'd been trying to make it about shagging, something a little more detached and clinical. Another step in keeping the distance, and not making herself vulnerable when it came to him, if she was honest. There was something a lot more truthful in the moment here then when she'd grabbed at his bloody crotch earlier.

So instead of protesting about what he really didn't need to do to get her into bed, Katie simply leaned her body against his - melding against his form. There was something erotic in the action, even if neither of their hands had strayed yet. She could feel every inch of him, wanting to get closer.

They were kissing then, no shying away, little innocence.

It wasn't a blur. Katie had thought that passion would make her awareness fuzzy, would cloud every thought. Instead she was conscious of every want, every thought, every emotion. It wasn't mindless. It was overwhelming, but it wasn't mindless. It didn't stop her from thinking.

She felt as his lips skimmed her throat, as his hand slid under her shirt, and she was very conscious of the flutter in her stomach and the dryness of her throat as she pulled off his jumper, at least once he cooperated. She was very very aware of the cool air against her legs once he'd urged her sweats off with his hands, and the wetness of her knickers.

She was conscious of his arms around her, elevating her slightly to spare her leg as they pushed back towards the same damn lumpy couch. This time though it was him on the bottom, with Katie straddling his torso - her back cradled against his lifted thighs - her hands flat on his chest, toying with the smattering of hair she found there.

And rather than fading into blur, sensation heightened when he smiled up at her - an honest, open smile which both aroused her and comforted her more than anything else. It heightened when his hand slid inside her knickers, pushing them aside as he twisted to slide his fingers inside her, urging her up.

"Merlin," she murmured on a gasp, nothing else - because coherency didn't come with awareness.

In that moment too, she'd never felt more desirable no matter what the mirror showed.

It wasn't instinctive what to do, but even as he moved his hand, she found herself starting to move against his fingers. It was odd, so very odd, because she was used to the texture of her own - trying to get herself off in the dark to fantasies and dreams, but so very much better. It was awkward, they should be in a bed, but for all she might be aware of it she didn't care in the slightest.

When he added his other hand to the mix, Katie came. She bit down on her lip to mute the sound as she shuddered, used to a self-induced little orgasm in privacy, used to it being a more solo thing. She was almost embarrassed to look at him, because he'd got her off while he only lay there, but his wide grin looking at her quelled some of the emotion.

"We could," he said, withdrawing his fingers on a light moan from her, "stop here. Pace ourselves. But, I think I'd like to make you emit an actual sound before the end of the night."

They could slide into awkwardness, or she could give into a certain amount of embarrassment - or they could continue to be them. Katie let out a slightly breathy laugh, pushing her hair back from her face and shifting. "You are arrogant, aren't you? I figure for my first time at doing this it's going to take an act of Merlin to make it worthy of the Wicked Witch novels - you know, screaming your name, or whatever."

"I am," Oliver agreed at her assertion on his arrogance, and then grinned, "but it's usually well founded."

 

******************************

 

When Katie awoke the next morning, for a split second she managed to forget. The warm arm encircling her body was foreign, and she almost felt suffocated from the lack of space. When it came back to her in an instantaneous recognition, she managed to relax. Oliver pressed against her in sleep, a light snoring tickling her ear, tucking her against him like a teddy bear from his childhood. They were going to have to experiment, considering there was no way she was going to be able to sleep like this when she wasn't downright exhausted, but for the moment Katie only smiled without moving. He'd wake soon enough.

The decision to get up was made for her however with a loud knock on her door. Katie was tempted to ignore it, but it came again a minute later, more insistent.

Sighing, she slipped from Oliver's arms, pushing herself to her feet. He woke slightly as she rummaged around the room for something to slip on considering starkers. "G'swhat?" He muttered, more than a little incoherently.

"Knock at the door," she whispered, "I've got it. Go back to sleep."

The walk to the door was a bit slow, considering she had to brace herself against the wall over the first few steps - and whoever was waiting knocked yet again just as she reached to yank it open. She would have been more careful, but she did have watchers so to speak, who weren't going to let just anybody with any explanation up to her door.

Angelina stood at the door, darting her eyes around nervously. That in itself was odd enough, but even more so was the outfit she was wearing. A woman normally well put together, she was nearly drowning in sweats and an oversized jumper that had the name of a pub in London emblazoned across the front. If Katie hadn't known better, she would have assumed Angelina had spent the night at some blokes place and borrowed his clothes for a walk of shame. Instead, she raised her eyebrows questioningly as she opened the door a little bit wider and let the other woman in.

"What are you doing here?" Katie asked.

Instead of answering Angelina looked at her, and then sighed. "Oh fuck it, I am not going to even try too fake this. I have no idea what she talks like."

Katie's blood began to run cold. Polyjuice.

Whoever it was held up a hand, "Oh hell, don't call for those pesky hit wizards just yet. I'm not here to hurt you. I'm Robin Dinsmore with the Daily Prophet."

A fucking reporter. Merlin knew they were tenacious, Rita Skeeter had proved that in her day, but she hadn't realized how devious they could be. Katie had her wand in her hand, but much as she considered him scum of the earth, she couldn't crucio just for being a piece of slime. Why on earth did he care enough to come here? "Get the hell out," she snapped, realizing only too late that he'd construe that some kind of aggressive advance when he went to print - not that it mattered what she did anyway, because truth rarely did.

Robin ignored her. "What do you say to the accusations that have been laid about you?"

"Seriously, get out," Katie didn't answer the question.

"Oh come on, it was implied you got your Quidditch position only because of your blood and connections. That you stood idly by during Voldemort's reign because you indirectly supported him, or maybe directly in secret - who knows. Now, you're being targeted by an extremist group for those very reasons. How much is truth, how much is fiction? I'm offering you a chance to tell your side of the story."

He was offering her a chance to sell some papers, or maybe if he was very ingenious incriminate her in some different way, nothing more. She'd always had her chance to tell her side of the story; even mediocre Quidditch players in the league never had a problem getting a reporters ear - she'd just chosen not to take it. "I've got no interest in talking to anybody, let alone a reporter who will misconstrue every word out of my mouth, and who sneaked in here under false pretenses."

Robin ignored her protests. "Wizarding World Today is planning on running a feature you know, digging into the background of every Quidditch player whose brooms were tampered with - their family, their connections, any dirty laundry."

Hearing that, all Katie could feel was incredibly tired. It really was never ending. She could place hope in the idea that they might uncover the good stuff - the bits of her life she could take pride in, but she really doubted they'd print it. Salacious was much more entertaining. She really should just kick the annoying little piece of slime out of her flat, but instead she found herself considering saying something for once that was about a little bit more than her recent Quidditch game. She'd wanted it to blow over, and had been sure it would, because of how little had been implied and said - but in a world that was looking for people to blame in their grief they'd latch onto anything. She'd become part of it.

"And you're not here just looking to paint me as the devil incarnate?" Katie sighed.

He held on a hand on his heart, "Word to Merlin." She wasn't gullible enough to believe it, but she'd felt it had to be asked all the same.

Katie opened her mouth to speak, to stop being entirely silent on the topic, but closed it after a moment instead. Her first instinct had been what it had been all along all along, to make excuses for those who were acting out, and to forgive the unforgiveable from an attempt at empathy. She'd been going to explain her sympathy for the muggleborns, but little else personal, hoping that would be enough. She hadn't been going to talk about her hurt, she was going to be understanding, she was going to be as bland but as hopefully human as possible. The only thing was, Katie was coming to realize she wasn't that tolerant.

"I was attacked by a terrorist group," she said, "long and short of it, that's what they were. I am sorry for every atrocity committed against a muggleborn last year, and every bit of prejudice that was there before, but I played no part in that. I never have, and I never well. I empathize and grieve with every single person out there whose family and friends have suffered - because I've lost too, I can understand the desire to place blame and find a target to hurt. That doesn't make it okay though, it doesn't make what has happened okay."

"I can verbally refute how I got onto the team," she said quietly, "but there's no way to prove that I got there by skill and skill alone, even if I did. You have to know being pureblooded gains me little these days, it only gains me animosity. It was no point in my favour."

"I know it's trite to say, but I never once supported Voldemort or his ideals. I'm not a war hero; I'm not Harry Potter, or one of the brave people who died in the name of bringing him down. All I had to show for it was a leg that never survived a curse from a Death Eater, going to try and fight for the light side at Hogwarts that last night. It's the only thing I can prove, the only thing of public record if anybody bothered to look instead of just groundlessly thinking me 'bad'. I don't have a record of defeating Dark Lords all over Britain, or saving thousands of lives, but it's enough - it should be enough."

Katie broke off before she could suggest that they might want to consider talking to somebody who knew her at some point, rather than people who resented her for replacing the people they'd lost. She broke off before she could talk about her personal sacrifices, because they were nobody's business but hers.

When it came right down to it she didn't know if she was saying it right, if she was getting across what she meant. She really wasn't good with words when it came to trying to get this sort of thing across. She only knew that she had to try, because silence wasn't working, and she didn't deserve this. She didn't deserve to have her home desecrated, or her person attacked in any way. She didn't want to be lauded, she didn't deserve that either, but she just wanted to be left alone. It was horrible to be attacked and thought less of when you were guilty of something, but even more so when you were innocent.

A sound behind her caught her attention. Katie turned her head slightly to see Oliver standing in the doorway to her bedroom, having managed to pull on a minimal clothes.

It wasn't that she'd forgotten his presence, she was incapable of that, but she'd assumed he's stay tucked away until the reporter left. He didn't do personal with the press, and reviled them for trying to talk about anything but Quidditch when it came to his life. From that first picture holding the Creevey boy at the battle, to his play as a captain in the league, it was very obvious that Robin recognized who he was. There was no way his presence here wouldn't be included in some way. Katie wanted to shove him back in the room, because he really didn't need to get mired down in this as well.

"I fought beside her that night at Hogwarts," he said quietly. "Watched her try and defend against a very powerful enemy no matter how scared she was because it was the right thing to do. Fuck you all for implying she's anything less than who she is."

She might have been annoyed with him for the protection he was trying to give her, rather than letting her defense stand on it's own merits. Instead, Katie was warmed by it.

She turned back to Robin, who's dictoquill had been working from the moment she'd opened her mouth. "Any questions?"

"That was a statement, not an interview," he said wryly, "but I suppose it works just as well."

It was obvious he might have pried a little more, but their twin glares stopped him. He had gotten the meat of what he came for anyway, that he could quote as he liked and interpret how he liked in the next edition. Robin was a smart man in other ways beyond logistics of sneaking past hit wizards because he didn't bother with pleasantries, knowing they wouldn't be well received after he'd snuck into her home under false pretenses.

After Katie closed the door behind him, she rested her head against the wood for a moment.

"I might be reading an article in the paper tomorrow about how I'm making claims to sympathy that aren't valid," she said on a sigh, "about how I've fooled you into believing me virtuous, and speculations on what mind-altering potion I'm giving you. I might be reading an article about a chaser who believes that one measley act redeems a lifetime of wrong, or about how people are using a tiny act of courage to paint themselves as being heroes - detracting from those who really were. I. . . have no idea what sort of article he's going to print."

She felt Oliver's hands on her shoulders, turning her to face him. "Maybe," he acknowledged, not lying just to make her feel better. They both knew anything could be printed, and it was out of her hands. Katie took solace in the fact things were already shite regardless. It was the one upside, the only upside, to the part where if she couldn't return to professional Quidditch - she might actually get left alone no matter what the next article said; she didn't mean enough to the world beyond that for anybody to care.

"But," Oliver continued, as she finally looked up to his face, "it was the right thing to do, the right thing to try - rather than sitting so fucking idly by while you're maligned."

She grimaced for more reasons than one. "This isn't the part where you mention being 'proud' of me in some way is it? Because if it is, I can assure you I'm quite good with my right hook. If you're going to be that condescending. . . ."

"Katie," he sighed, frustrated, "shut up. I'm being supportive here."

Katie let him put his arm around her, taking comfort in the hug. It was easier to lash out rather than think about it all.

His voice rumbled against her hair, "Listen, with this or anything else, know that you're not going to be alone in it. Your friends, your real ones, are going to stick by you through thick and thin. They might be as annoying as all hell sometimes, but you know that's true. And you know, you have to know by now, I'm here with you no matter what - through your idiocy, or somebody else's, or mine for that matter. It really doesn't matter what gets printed, the important stuff is never going to change."

Other women might not take them as overly romantic words, but to Katie they meant more than poetry, or candles, or lovely Christmas decorations.

Things were going to work out as they would; with her leg, with Quidditch, with the papers, with her teammates, with the public. She might not always be as sanguine as she currently felt, but in the moment it was easy to be a little more accepting rather than worrying about what was going to come next. Tomorrow would bring about enough headaches - she didn't need to court them before their time.

Closing her eyes, Katie let herself get lost in the physical embrace.

 

The End