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fly like paper, high like planes

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Every day, Harry is the first to arrive.

The Appleby stadium is surrounded by Muggle-repelling wards, so each morning he Apparates just to the south of the High Street and watches Muggles sitting glumly at the bus stop, ignoring one another on their way to work. Of course, all they see is an abandoned bit of land beside a council estate. It looks like it had playground equipment on it once, but now it’s overgrown, littered with rubbish, and best avoided. There’s nothing to reveal the soaring wooden Quidditch stands just metres away.

It’s starting to feel properly like autumn, and Harry notices the drop in temperature. A deep twinging ache begins in his hip and he has to catch his balance as he lands. He rubs at it fruitlessly while he struggles with the door. The wards unlock without effort, but the wood has sunk a little on its hinges and sticks in the frame until he gives it a sharp tug.

The clubhouse for the Appleby Arrows smells like broom polish and leather and Luna’s liniment potions. Harry’s pretty sure that if he brewed Amortentia today, it would smell like this. The corridor is lined with framed photos of teams going back decades, and Harry loves the way the players wave at him each day as he walks past. Their sepia-toned uniforms and outdated brooms look old fashioned, but the windswept glee evident on the face of every witch and wizard is timeless.

He passes the changing rooms and Luna’s little infirmary, then rounds the corner past Neville’s broom workshop and the training gym. Finally, at the very end of the corridor is the door to his own office, paint peeling and its little plaque listing to one side.

Harry Potter – Head Coach.

His office is cramped and on the wrong side of the building, so it gets basically no natural light, but Harry’s always insisted he doesn’t care. The important thing is that they use all of the wizarding space they have available to them for the players’ facilities. He only needs enough room for a giant blackboard to draw diagrams on and a television to watch game videos. He’s grateful the wizarding world adopted so much Muggle technology after the war. The idea of having to spend half his work days with his head in a Pensieve, the way coaches used to, has always seemed unappealing.

There’s a rap at the window and Harry shoves it up in its aging frame to let in his owl. It’s a copy of the Prophet and yet another letter from the Arrows’ owner, Bernard Balham, asking to meet. Harry tosses it on the growing pile.

Balham’s too polite to just turn up at the clubhouse, probably, but Harry knows he can’t put him off forever. It’s just that he also knows nothing about the meeting will be good news. The Prophet tables show the Arrows are still bottom of the League. The gate takings are down again on last quarter. The stadium is so empty some weeks he thinks they might as well just close the stands and let the few straggling fans they have left come up and watch from the VIP boxes. He feels like they’ve earned it through their sheer loyalty alone. Lifers, like old Jim Cranswick. He must be at least a hundred years old, but he buys the cheapest available season ticket every year and never misses a game, rain or shine.

It’s not entirely the team’s fault. They’re young, is all. Last season, the Arrows had several key retirements, and the fresh faces need time to learn how to play together properly. The sad reality is, it wouldn’t really matter if the team was winning. The Arrows played the top-of-the-league Tornadoes last month and their stadium may have been in much better condition, but it certainly wasn’t anywhere near full.

Harry sighs, easing himself into his chair and trying to ignore the tug in his hip.

Balham knows as well as he does—Quidditch is simply dying out.

The League struggled to find its footing after the war. People were genuinely too nervous to be out in large crowds after what had happened at the ’94 World Cup—and everything after. Even Harry’s own signing to the starting lineup for Puddlemere wasn’t nearly the drawcard everyone predicted. And when he was injured too badly to play in his second season, it felt like the beginning of the end in more ways than one.

Harry’s endured endless meetings over the years. League briefings and owners’ dinners. He’s sat through flashy presentations from PR flaks and advertising firms about rebranding and sponsorships and competitions to attract the crowds. None of it has made a blind bit of difference. Young witches and wizards these days are just more interested in learning about Muggle sports and pastimes, and their parents are all too keen to support them, desperate to signal that they were on the “right side” during the war. The last time Harry met Hermione, while she was on duty chaperoning Third Years on a Hogsmeade weekend, half the students he saw were wearing Premier League football shirts. Hermione was a bit sheepish when she revealed that the school was even thinking about instituting a football cup.

Harry finds it all a bit hard to believe, really. He so vividly remembers the first time he saw Quidditch played at Hogwarts, and that ill-fated World Cup. He’ll never get over the sheer talent and determination and skill involved when great players take to the sky. Why anyone with access to magic would want to shuffle a ball around on the ground with their feet is utterly beyond him.

But the numbers don’t lie.

He picks up Balham’s message again, and scratches out a curt response agreeing to meet after training on Friday. He fetches his playbook and decides to go study it in Luna’s rooms. She might be able to give him something for his hip before it starts to lock up completely. Besides, she has an armchair upholstered in a bright yellow velvet that matches nothing else in the entire building, but remains the most comfortable piece of furniture he’s ever sat on. He likes to have the coffee ready before she and Neville arrive. Luna will always take a cup gratefully and begin talking to Harry as if she’s halfway through a conversation, chattering on about something they’ve literally never discussed before: the benefits of starflower in potions for muscle cramps, whether the Cannon’s Seeker is actually having an affair with that singer whose name Harry can never remember, how she’s considering repainting the changing rooms a sage green to improve player concentration.

It isn’t the worst way to start the day.

“I’m learning to sew like Muggles do,” Luna says as she walks in a few minutes later, unsurprised to see him and accepting a chipped enamel mug with a smile as she hangs her cloak. “Because it means you have to think about how the pieces of fabric fit together to become clothing. It’s much more intentional than using magic.”

Harry looks down at the clean but serviceable hoodie and jeans he's wearing as if seeing them for the first time. He’s not sure he’s ever applied the word “intentional” to clothing.

“The machine also makes a very soothing noise,” Luna carries on. “And it’s very affordable.”

She doesn’t mean anything by it, but the comment still makes Harry wince. Luna is a talented Healer and so curious about the way the body works. She’s an invaluable part of the squad—he’s acutely aware she could be earning much more working for almost any other team, and very grateful for her loyalty to the Arrows.

“Sodding cold out.”

Same with Neville, Harry thinks, watching him stomp into the room, shrug off his jacket, and reach for a mug. Harry’s tried several times to insist that the pair of them needn’t keep working here out of some misplaced dedication to him, but he’s gotten nowhere with it. The last time he brought it up, Neville just rolled his eyes and Luna started talking about replanting an area behind the visitors stand with wormwood, which Neville got far more excited about than Harry really thought was warranted for plants.

“All right, Harry?” Neville asks, taking in his hunched expression.

“Yeah. Balham wants a meeting, is all.”

Neville’s eyes light up. “You could ask him about the Firebolts. I’ve found a supplier in Denmark who would do us a deal on…”

He trails off as Harry gently shakes his head.

“I don’t imagine it’s going to be the sort of conversation where he agrees to pay for new brooms, Nev.”

“Oh. Well, we can make do with what we have at the moment, honestly. I have a line on replacement bristles out of Japan that are really good for precision turns.”

Harry is constantly inspired by Neville’s persistent optimism in the face of their shrinking budget.

Outside in the corridor he can hear the team arriving for practice—the noisy clang of locker doors being thrown back and the sound of a weight machine next door in the gym being pressed into service. He struggles a little getting back to his feet, pushing himself out of the comfy armchair. Luna eyes him with suspicion and hands him a small bottle of salve before he even asks.

Hours later, he sits astride his broom watching Oliver Wood bellowing at Maxwell, their newest Chaser, a fresh-faced signing straight out of Hogwarts who shows enormous potential but is literally becoming too terrified to try anything.

“Wood,” he chides the older man gently. “Give him a break.”

Oliver Wood had a vibrant career for Puddlemere. After he and Harry overlapped for the one season, he went on to lead the team to repeated victories for another eight years before retiring. Quidditch flows in Oliver’s blood though, and he was so bored as a sporting celebrity trotted out for charity dinners that it didn’t take much for Harry to convince him to come lead the Arrows for a season or two. The problem is that he’s impatient, driven, and used to winning. He seems to think the Arrows’ lack of success is simply down to them not working quite as hard as his former teammates. And he has a tendency to point that out a little too frequently.

Harry eyes the younger player, still quaking on his broom. It’s not that he disagrees with Wood’s lecture about fundamentals, it’s just not proving to be very productive in Maxwell’s case.

“Let’s take a break there,” he calls out to the team. “We’ll move in to the gym.”

Oliver frowns at him for a second before flying in to land.

Harry waits for the team to dismount below before he descends, self-conscious about how off his balance feels today. It’s just the cold weather, he figures, ignoring a nagging sense of dread. His hip will adjust.

~

Balham looks completely out of place in Harry’s cramped little office.

Harry usually only sees him on match day, when he sits in the Owner’s Box, his barrel chest puffed out, talking loudly to his friends. As if by doing so he can distract them from the faded velvet and fraying upholstery. As if—if he pours them enough drinks—they might not notice the scoreline.

Here, Balham fills up too much of the room. His face is florid and sweaty. Harry very much wants this meeting to be over, and it’s only just begun.

“The thing is…” Balham says, for the third time, wiping at his brow with the back of his hand. Harry feels a twinge of guilt, like he should leap in and finish the man’s sentence for him. Maybe put them both out of their misery.

The thing is, you’re fired.

“It was really the only way, last year. I was sure I’d be able to manage it, once the new concession stand opened.”

The new concession stand is a gleaming overindulgence that stocks Arrows-branded merchandise no one buys and snacks that all taste like apples. Harry could have done without knowing what apple-flavoured hotdogs taste like, to be honest. Even old Jim Cranswick couldn’t find anything good to say about those.

“But it turns out…the thing is…”

Harry lets the silence stretch awkwardly to fill the room. Balham can do his own dirty work—Harry’s not going to fall on his own sword.

“I borrowed a lot of money, Harry,” Balham finally says, quietly, so that Harry has to lean forward to hear clearly. “And I thought I’d have been able to pay it back by now.”

“Borrowed from…?”

“Gringotts. And you know what the goblins are like. The loans are due and they’re not interested in discussing terms or agreeing to extensions. Believe me, I’ve tried.” Balham pulls a damp-looking handkerchief from his pocket and mops at his temple.

Harry does know. He knows all too well. It took months of Ministry-facilitated meetings and most of the contents of Harry’s vaults to make sure the goblins didn’t take any further action against him and Ron and Hermione after the war. Turns out a dragon can cause quite a lot of very expensive structural damage, and there’s only so far being the “saviour of the wizarding world” will get you. Harry’s never missed the money—he has Grimmauld Place to live in and enough to get by—but he remembers how completely intractable the bankers were.

“Why didn’t you tell me?” he asks, sadly. “I might have been able to do something.”

Balham offers him a grim smile. “The problem is a little bigger than a bake sale, Harry.”

“So what happens now?”

“The goblins have exercised their security. They’re taking over—have taken over, I suppose. They’re appointing a new CEO to run things around here. You’ll meet them on Monday.”

God. That’s all Harry needs. A goblin-appointed bureaucrat breathing down his neck about how few apple-flavoured hotdogs are sold each week.

“So what does that mean for me? The staff? The team?”

Balham gives an embarrassed shrug. “It’s out of my hands, Harry. They’re not telling me anything anymore.”

He gets up out of the wobbly guest chair, once again taking up too much space. Harry feels tired and uncomfortable. He thinks he should probably be able to muster up some sympathy for Balham’s financial situation, but all he can think about are Luna and Nev and whether there will even be jobs for them come next week. For a second, Balham looks like he’s about to say something else, but then seems to decide better of it. He waddles out the door of Harry’s office without so much as a backward glance.

Harry slumps back in his chair and looks up at the ceiling where there’s a spider web he can’t bring himself to clean away. The ache in his leg twinges. He rubs at it with a sigh and gets up to gather his things.

He steps through Ron and Hermione’s Floo, startling Hugo tottering towards a pile of blocks on the floor. The toddler sits down abruptly and starts to wail, so Harry scoops him up on his good hip, alternately making silly faces and soothing noises at him as he heads into the kitchen.

Ron is dumping pasta into a strainer in the sink and Hermione’s surrounded by piles of student work. There’s a comfortable familiarity about Friday night dinners at their little house in Hogsmeade that makes the tension in Harry’s shoulders uncoil a little. It’s easy to get Hermione chatting about her Transfiguration students as she stacks the parchments she’s marking into neat piles. Harry bounces Hugo gently on his knee while Ron calls for Rose to come and help set the table. The bolognese is delicious, and for a while Harry manages to put the events of the afternoon out of his mind.

“How’s work, Harry?”

Not for long enough though, it seems.

He idly pushes the last of his dinner around the plate with his fork as he tells them both about Balham and his money woes.

“Will you get the chop, do you think?” Ron asks, never one for beating around the bush. Hermione frowns at him as if to say he could stand to be a little more polite, but Harry doesn’t care.

“No idea,” he sighs. “I guess I’ll need to wait and see what this new CEO wants to do. I get the feeling there’ll be a lot of cost-cutting involved.” Harry can’t see how there won’t be. He’s seen the accounts. He knows how bad it is.

Ron nods. “Ginny’s said even the Harpies are finding it tough getting sponsors to renew this year.”

Hermione makes a little noise in the back of her throat, like she wants to say something, but is holding back. Harry looks at her, raising his eyebrows.

“Well, it’s just—maybe this is a sign that it’s time to look at doing something else?”

It would be disappointing if it wasn’t so predictable. Hermione’s been subtly and not-so-subtly trying to get him to pursue a new career for years. She never understood why he chose to play professionally in the first place, and Harry didn’t really have the language in those first few months after the war to explain why his childhood ambition of becoming an Auror was suddenly the very last thing he wanted to do. That, in between the endless Ministry meetings and the trials before the Wizengamot and the speeches and public appearances, the only thing that kept him sane was taking to the pitch on a broom. That—once she moved in with Ron—the camaraderie he shared with his teammates was the only thing that filled the emptiness he felt, no longer always surrounded by school friends, dormmates, or the Order.

And then he was injured.

There was no one to blame. The Boy Who Lived had survived far worse. And the Auror team that had swept the stadium after the war for Dark curses were experienced and capable. They’d just missed this one. Just one Death Eater mine, left behind by wizards now long-dead or imprisoned. Just one curse, looped around a Quidditch hoop, waiting for someone unsuspecting to fly through it.

Harry remembers the shock of it, like electricity shooting through his leg, but not much else. The Healers did a very good job of treating him, but as Harry knew only too well, Dark magic leaves its scars. Rehabilitation helped, but he’ll never have the balance he needs to fly properly again. All he has left is coaching others.

And Hermione’s never quite been able to grasp that that’s enough for him. A quiet life with a doddery old house-elf who makes his breakfast, and a team of players who love the game almost as much as he does, and a Kneazle that curls against his damaged leg at the foot of his bed at night. He doesn’t want to found charities, or teach extra-curricular Defence Against the Dark Arts classes, or write a memoir. He doesn’t want to sit for his N.E.W.T.s by distance, or work with war orphans, or any of the other many, many careers Hermione’s gently suggested over the years. He just wants the sound of a Quaffle whistling through the air and the glint of a Snitch bobbing just out of reach.

He manages to give her what he hopes is a patient smile. He knows she means well.

“Let’s wait and see what the new boss has to say, first.”

Hermione seems mollified, helping Ron clear the plates while Harry is cajoled into reading Rose a bedtime story. Grimmauld Place feels cold and dark when he gets home, and Casper rubs back and forth against his legs as he brushes his teeth, impatient for Harry to get in bed so she can set to kneading and turning endless circles in the covers.

It takes him a long time to drift off to sleep.

~

Harry briefly considers dressing up a bit for his meeting but then decides there’s no point. If he’s getting fired, dress robes aren’t going to help. And if the new CEO is more interested in conscripting Harry into helping pore over spreadsheets to cut costs, then he might as well be comfortable while he does it.

He knows exactly the sort of person the goblins will have hired. Some number-cruncher who understands as much about Quidditch as a Muggle and cares even less. Someone who started wearing shiny suits straight after the war and was one of the first to get a mobile phone, as if by enthusiastically adopting all things non-wizarding they could pretend the whole conflict had never happened.

So Harry’s pretty sure, whoever it is, they’re not going to get along.

It’s only when he hears the distinctive clack of high heels striding down the corridor towards his office that he starts to rethink his assumptions. But when Pansy fucking Parkinson opens his door, he knows for sure they’re not going to get along.

“Close your mouth, Potter, you’ll catch Doxies.”

Harry thinks his shocked expression is fully justified, given the last time he saw Parkinson she was trying to hand him over to Voldemort. Ten years have passed and she doesn’t look any less dangerous, given her incredibly high heels, sharp haircut, and blood-red lipstick. Her suit looks like it cost more than Harry’s annual salary.

“What the fuck are you doing here?” he asks, hoping against hope that he’s wrong and she’s just lost or took a wrong turn or something.

“I thought Balham told you I was coming.”

No such luck.

“Why would the goblins have appointed you, of all people?”

“Hmm, let’s see,” she muses, as if she’s giving the question serious consideration, tapping one perfectly-manicured red nail against her cheek. “Could it be the MBA from Harvard Business School? The four years working leveraged M&A for Morgan Stanley in New York? My restructure of the Arena Football League in the United States, or the two separate Quodpot franchises I’ve rescued from bankruptcy? Hard to say, Potter, hard to say.”

“You’ve been working as a Muggle?”

“Wizards don’t know the first fucking thing about business.” She eyes the rickety-looking guest chair on the other side of his desk with suspicion, before taking a seat and crossing her legs. She’d be attractive, probably, if she didn’t strongly resemble a walking nest of vipers.

Parkinson opens her leather satchel and withdraws a folder full of paperwork.

“And you, it seems, are no exception.”

Harry bristles defensively. “Now hold on—”

“No, I don’t think I will. We have a limited runway here, Potter. Of course, it’s entirely up to you whether you want to cooperate or not. I am authorised to pay you a month’s severance if you’d like to leave today.”

A month’s pay is insulting. He’d be okay for a while, it’s not like he needs to pay rent. But if he takes her offer then he’s leaving the team and the rest of the staff in the hands of a piranha, and he obviously can’t do that.

“You’re not getting rid of me that easily,” he sneers.

Parkinson looks up from her notes, and raises one eyebrow. “I don’t want to get rid of you at all, Potter. Your fading starpower is one of the few assets this club has.”

Harry grimaces. He doubts that’s even true, and if it is, then the Arrows’ financial position is probably more precarious than he’d thought.

She slides a spreadsheet across the desk to him.

“Here are the first round of redundancies.”

Harry scans down the list in horror. It’s unbelievably long.

“All of concessions goes—we’ll outsource that to contractors. We’re cutting the groundskeeping staff in half. The development players are all being released from their contracts.”

Harry’s heart sinks. So many people. He thinks about the excited young players straight out of Hogwarts who’d been so delighted to be signed professionally, even for a team as poorly-ranked as the Arrows.

“And of course there’s absolutely no need for in-house broom maintenance or medical.”

Wait.

“No.”

Parkinson gives him an appraising look. “Excuse me?”

“Neville and Luna stay. I can…I can handle the rest of this list, but you fire the two of them and I’m gone as well.”

Her mouth curls in just the faintest imitation of a smile and Harry feels as though a trap has snapped shut somewhere and he missed it. Sodding Slytherins.

“Very well. Lovegood and Longbottom keep their jobs, if you sign a new magically-binding contract guaranteeing you’ll see out this season. I won’t have you threatening to quit in a fit of pique every time I need to make changes around here.”

She plucks a parchment from her satchel and produces an ornate-looking quill.

This is it, Harry supposes. He’s putting his job on the line—and, he suspects, his sanity—to make sure Luna and Neville still have wages. And he’s not even sure they’ll want them, when they see who the new boss is. But they’ve both turned up here, day after day, and he owes them this. He snatches the quill out of Parkinson’s hand and slashes his signature across the bottom of the parchment.

“Not even going to read it, Potter?” she smirks at him.

He shrugs. “Not much point, is there.”

She taps her wand to his signature and it lights up briefly before the parchment rolls itself tightly and she tucks it back in her bag.

“Quite. Now: show me around this dump.”

The ache in Harry’s hip throbs in time with a headache building high behind his eyes. The idea of an entire season with Parkinson sniping at him is more than he can contemplate. But, he bargains with himself mentally, at least he’s bought some time. He can get his athletes through this season and help Luna and Nev find jobs with better-performing clubs. He can even work out what he might want to do next, because trotting after Pansy Parkinson’s clacking stilettos certainly isn’t it.

She spends only minutes in the gymnasium, eyeing the slightly out-of-date equipment. She turns up her nose entirely at the changing rooms, and instead heads through the tunnel and out onto the pitch.

Graham, the aging Head Groundskeeper, set the mowing charms going yesterday, so at least it looks neat and tidy. But it was a long, hot summer, and the grass has died back in patches, leaving exposed areas of dry earth baked hard in the sun. Even to Harry’s loving, biased eyes, it looks a little dilapidated. Parkinson slides an expensive pair of sunglasses onto her nose as she glances up at the soaring hoops and takes in the empty stands. Her expression is inscrutable. Harry has no idea what she’s thinking.

“All right, Potter,” she says after a long pause. “I’ve got a full day of firing people ahead. You can stick around and hand out tissues, or you can leave me to it. Either way, you’re coming with me to a meeting of the League owners tomorrow at four.”

Harry’s startled by the offered reprieve and it must show on his face.

“You’re not the reason they’re losing their jobs,” she says. “You can let me be the villain, I’m used to it.”

For just a second, he recognises the Parkinson he last saw at school, before her face closes in again.

“I’m staying,” Harry insists, because it’s the right thing to do.

Later, after the bad news has been delivered and Parkinson’s left to wherever hags curl up at night, Neville convinces Harry to come with him and Luna to the local pub. Harry’s almost afraid they’ll find some of their now-former colleagues there drowning their sorrows, but the little bar is mostly empty. His first pint barely touches the sides.

“God that was awful,” he says morosely, poking at his empty crisp packet and thinking he should probably order some real food. “I’ve never been through anything that bad.”

Neville snorts. “No offence, mate, but I think the three of us have all been through a lot worse.”

Harry’s forced to chuckle.

“I think the hard part is over,” Luna says serenely. “Now we can just focus on the team we have left and playing the best season we can.” Neville gives her a winning smile.

One season, Harry thinks, heading to the bar to order another round. How hard can that be?

~

The Headquarters of the British and Irish Quidditch League is housed in an ancient wizarding building covered in ivy with Est. 1674 carved in stone over the door. Harry has only been here a couple of times. Once for some flashy fundraiser when he was a player, and then occasionally over the years when Balham insisted on meeting here for a drink while they discussed the team’s performance. It has a musty, closed-in smell, and virtually no sunlight makes its way in through the tall, narrow windows. There’s a stuffed dragon head mounted above the fireplace in the library that makes Harry feel ill every time he sees it.

The walls are covered with framed portraits of old wizards who always look a little askance at Harry, as if they wished he of all people hadn’t been the one to save the wizarding world. He can’t possibly imagine what they think of Pansy Parkinson striding through their hallowed halls, but he’s enjoying their pearl-clutching looks of disdain being aimed at someone other than him for a change.

Parkinson looks like she’s heading into battle armed only with a perfectly tailored suit, very high heels, and incredibly shiny hair. She doesn’t even look around to see if Harry’s keeping pace, and he wonders absently if that’s what the rest of the year is going to be like. Half-jogging to catch up with Parkinson everywhere she goes, always half a step behind. How things have changed since school.

The big double doors to the Cyprian Youdle Memorial Dining Room are closed, but Parkinson barely pauses, flicking her wand out of the sleeve of her jacket and casting so that they swing back dramatically on squeaking hinges. The twelve owners of the other teams in the League look up in unison, startled. Little fairy cakes and club sandwiches are piled high in the centre of the table, and they look almost comically out of place, as if the very old and very wealthy wizards were playing tea party.

At the head of the table, the owner of Puddlemere United, Archie Allsop, scowls at them both. Harry can’t stand him. He remembers all too well the way his coach at the time had wanted to keep Harry on another season—to give him a chance to work on his rehab—but Allsop had called Harry an “expensive disappointment” and released his contract immediately.

“I don’t know what you think you’re playing at, Miss Parkinson,” he sneers, his voice dripping with condescension. “The League owners’ meeting happens every year in March. We are all extremely busy people.” A rumbling noise of agreement passes over the table as the other men nod, although Harry knows for a fact that the only thing the owner of the Kestrels does these days is totter from lunch at his club to drinks at his local. “For you to insist on this gathering, and to rope in the Ministry to ensure that it happened, is both irregular and inappropriate.”

Allsop directs his look of disapproval briefly at a nervous-looking young man in Ministry robes sitting in the corner who Harry vaguely recognises as being somehow involved in Games and Sports. He wonders how on earth Parkinson has influence in the Ministry of all places, and how she managed to leverage it to get all of these men here today.

If she’s affected by Allsop’s smug tone, she doesn’t show it.

“If we wait until March, you’ll all be out of business, like Balham.”

One or two of the men scoff, but there’s an uncomfortable silence from the remainder.

“As you know,” Parkinson goes on, snapping her wand in the direction of a huge velvet curtain that smooths itself out obediently and turns white, like a movie screen. “The Appleby Arrows are on the verge of bankruptcy. I have been appointed to ensure that doesn’t happen.” Another flick, and the screen fills with charts, all of them declining depressingly down and to the right.

There’s some mumbling around the table.

“As you can see, attendance, merchandise sales, listening and viewing figures have all been trending down for the last decade and show no signs of recovery.”

“Look, Miss…” Parkinson levels an icy stare at the interruption. The owner of the Tornadoes quails back in his seat a little, but then presses on. “The Arrows’ financial difficulties are obviously disappointing, but it’s hardly anything to do with the rest of us.”

“You misunderstand me, Mr Nightingale. These are not the Arrows’ results. These are the aggregate numbers for the League as a whole.”

The room falls silent. Several of the men around the table shift uncomfortably in their seats. One of them pulls out a pair of spectacles and squints more closely at Parkinson’s screen. None of them seem to want to make eye contact with any of the others.

“For the Arrows’ restructuring to proceed, I need a successful, profitable league for them to compete in. The British and Irish Quidditch League is a catastrophic failure.”

“Even if you have these numbers correct, and I doubt that you do,” Allsop spits out, his face colouring with anger. “What exactly is it that you’ve dragged us here to propose?”

“That we completely reinvent the sport of Quidditch.”

Harry would almost be able to enjoy the looks of horrified shock on the owners’ faces, but he suspects his own expression mirrors theirs.

“You what?” he coughs. She ignores him.

Parkinson strides around the long mahogany table, sliding folders in front of each attendee. One by one they open them warily, as if there’s something inside that might bite.

“You don’t need to digest the details in full today, you can take these away with you. The changes are all aimed at making games shorter, higher scoring, and much more exciting to watch. Limited game times, the introduction of permitted magic on brooms, and the ability for players to cast in flight are the key differences.”

The Catapults’ owner—Greathill, Harry thinks his name is—starts to sputter in outrage. “This is ridiculous. The rules of Quidditch have remained unchanged—”

“For far too long,” Parkinson cuts him off. She flicks her wand at the screen and the depressing downward graphs are replaced with bouncing upward ones.

“Muggles are, once again, well ahead of us in this regard. These are the comparative figures for the Muggle sport of cricket, after the introduction of the shorter, faster Twenty20 game.” Flick. “And here’s the revenue figures for Rugby Sevens, a fast-paced version of the game played by a half-sized team.”

Harry watches in horror as the owners close their mouths and start to stare at the graphs in interest. He can practically see their eyeballs turn into Galleons right in front of him.

Flick.

The screen changes to video, a very clever spell that Harry thinks for a second he should get Parkinson to teach him for team briefings before he manages to shake himself out of it. She’s a predator. Who, it seems, is not only trying to ruin his life, but also the sport in general. He’s not going to ask her for magic tutorials.

The video is a shaky, handheld thing, probably filmed from Omnioculars. It’s hard to work out where it’s taking place—the players aren’t in a proper stadium, and it doesn’t look like they’re in England—but nevertheless it’s impossible to look away. The players are fast, faster than Harry’s seen on brooms in a long time, and the manoeuvres they’re attempting look like something straight out of Muggle acrobatics. At first Harry thinks it’s some sort of exhibition match, where stunt players show off tricks and so on, but then he realises with an involuntary hiss that actually the players are forced to move so quickly and evasively because they’re firing hexes at one another. A Beater narrowly misses a glowing red spell, flipping upside down with seconds to spare and still, miraculously, managing to bat away the Bludger. The crowd lets up a cheer in a language Harry doesn’t recognise, and the cheer quickly turns to excited yells as another hex goes wide, striking a wooden sign at the edge of the pitch and causing it to splinter and smoke. The screen goes black.

“What on earth was that?” Allsop sneers at Parkinson.

“An unsanctioned match filmed in Kyiv last week. Part of an underground league on the continent.”

“You cannot possibly be suggesting we start allowing players to blow things up. If we wanted to play Quodpot we’d move to the New World.”

Parkinson levels an even look at Allsop and then around the table at each of them in turn. Harry’s quick to note the others don’t seem remotely as horrified, some even turning the pages of Parkinson’s proposal with interest.

“I like money,” she concludes simply, waving her wand at the screen and reverting it to its original state as a curtain. “If you don’t like money, you can keep playing village Quidditch until you die on a broom. But you’ll be doing it on your own. That’s the proposal. You have a week to decide.”

Parkinson picks up her bag and spins on her heel, striding out of the room. Once again, Harry’s forced to jog to catch up.

~

“It’s preposterous,” he says, for maybe the third or fourth time since they’ve returned to the Appleby stadium. Like the word is stuck in his throat. Like he can’t think of another one.

“What is, saving the League?” Parkinson pours herself a cup of coffee, but her face twists in disgust when she tastes it. Harry hopes it’s cold. And still there from yesterday. It would serve her right.

“You’re not saving it, you’re destroying it. What you’re proposing goes against the very spirit of the game.”

She discards the cup back on the worktop, leaning against it and crossing her arms in defiance.

“Really? Rules unchanged since the 1600s and blah blah blah history? What about the Arrows old habit of shooting actual arrows into the air to celebrate a goal? Took that poor ref taking one to the nose in 1894 before that was banned, didn’t it? Or the introduction of the Pennifold Quaffle. Would you prefer to go back to the days when your Chasers had to keep nose-diving to the ground to get the damn things back? Would that be more authentic? The game has evolved beyond all recognition from its earliest incarnations. The game has to continue to evolve, Potter, or it dies.”

“The game evolved to become safer. You’re proposing to make it more dangerous.”

“Rubbish. I’m proposing to make it faster and more interesting.”

“It’s already fast,” Harry feels his voice rising to a yell. “It’s already interesting.” He thinks back to that first World Cup he’d attended, when the players had been so swift on their brooms he’d tried to watch the game at half-speed on his Omnioculars and wound up missing a goal. Anyone who thinks Quidditch is boring needs their head read, and he says as much.

“The last Puddlemere game lasted sixteen hours, Potter. It’s tedious. No one cares.”

That game had gone on a little long, he’ll concede. But that doesn’t happen often. Or not all that often, at any rate. Regardless, he doesn’t want anything to do with this.

“You can make all the changes you like, I’m not interested. You can find a new coach.”

Parkinson arches one carefully-shaped eyebrow at him.

“Interesting idea, Potter, but no, I don’t think I will. You signed a new, binding contract with me for the whole season.”

Harry can feel his anger like a physical thing, roiling under his skin and making his magic waver and flex. “You misled me,” he spits out, trying to keep himself under control. He should have known she’d do something like this, Slytherin to the bloody core.

“Cry about it in court, Potter. I’ve been sued more times than you’ve lost games. If you walk away now, you’ll feel the effects of the contract immediately. And you won’t enjoy them.”

He suspects she’s probably right. Plus it’s not like he can afford to sue her, or the goblins she represents. He feels his heightened emotions deflate rapidly into defeat.

“I’m not going to teach players to fly upside down and fling hexes at one another,” he protests mulishly. “You may have bound me to coach for a season, but all you’ll be getting out of me is a team that’s good at traditional Quidditch with strong broomwork.”

She sniggers. Harry glares at her.

“I’m not going to do it, Parkinson. I won’t teach people to play like that.”

“No, you won’t. I don’t expect you to—you’d be terrible at it. I’ve hired a new coach to make sure the Arrows will be fit to compete.”

Harry feels his mouth fall open again, an irritatingly default facial expression around Parkinson, he’s finding.

Excuse me? Why on earth would you bind me to this sodding team, if you already have someone else in mind?”

“I need you both. Half of those daft old bastards only listened to me today because you were standing at my side and they’re forced to respect you. I need you for your name, your dedication, and the way you will get up in front of the press and vouch for the new League.”

Harry sputters in indignation. Parkinson seems not to notice.

“And I need another coach who can teach the team how to win under the new rules. That’s obviously not you.”

“And where do you propose to find a coach who can do that, when you’ve just invented the new bloody rules?”

“That game you saw on the screen today, Potter? He was the captain of the winning side. He’s won and lost more money in underground league games in the last five years than your vaults could possibly hold. He’s widely considered to be one of the most dangerous and successful unsanctioned Quidditch players in all of Europe.”

Harry hears the sound of someone walking down the corridor towards them.

“And that will be him now.” Parkinson looks unaccountably smug.

The door to Harry’s office opens, and Harry’s not sure who is wearing the more outraged expression, himself or Draco Malfoy.

“Bloody buggering fuck Pansy, what have you done?”

Harry hasn’t seen Malfoy in a decade. Not since he fled to Europe with his parents after the final battle. And with a wand to his head, Harry couldn’t have described the man standing in front of him now.

The blond hair is the same, though it’s now shaved sharply up the sides and long on top. His features are still pointy, but he’s grown into them somehow. Harry’s horrified to realise that Malfoy’s become ridiculously, outrageously attractive. He’s tall and powerful-looking, clearly in incredible physical condition. He looks like he could run rings around Harry’s Chasers without even leaving the ground. Everything about him leaves Harry hot under the collar, from the pierced ears to the scar running down the side of his throat to the tattoos covering both of his forearms. His jeans are torn in a way Harry supposes is meant to be fashionable, but exposes a thin stretch of muscled thigh that Harry thinks is mostly just inappropriate. Or at least is causing Harry to react to him in completely inappropriate ways.

“No, absolutely not,” Malfoy says to Parkinson, his voice now bored and matter-of-fact, and Harry shakes his head abruptly in agreement, tearing his eyes away from Malfoy to scowl darkly at her.

She looks from one to the other with just the faintest hint of a smile.

“Just like old times.” She gathers her things, ignoring the pair of them. “Neither of you have a choice. You’ve both signed binding magical contracts. You have to work together for one season. Then you can do whatever the fuck you like.”

She pats Malfoy on the arm as she slips past him to the door.

“I’ll leave you two to get reacquainted.”