Stand Tall by Chelts-rhj
FeatureSummary:

Lovely banner by abhorsen. @ TDA

Alba Williamson is a cross-word loving Ravenclaw in her seventh year at Hogwarts. Pity is her nemisis, and pride is her guiding light. Determined to keep her head up through thick and thin, she struggles with the challenges of cerebral palsy. Though her best friend James helps as much as he can, things are sure to change with the Triwizard Tournament right around the corner.


Categories: Harry Potter Universe Characters: Original Character
Advisories: None
HPFT Forum House: Ravenclaw
Genre: Action/Adventure
Inclusivity: Anxiety, Other Physical Disability
Pairings: None
Story Type: Novel (50,000+ words)
Themes: Bullying, Discrimination, Friendship, School
Challenges:
Series: None
Chapters: 12 Completed: No Word count: 56241 Read: 208 Published: 21 Mar 2018 Updated: 07 Apr 2018
Story Notes:

Chapter titles are lyrics from the song “I’m not that Girl” by Stephen Schwartz 

1. Chapter 1: Hands Touch by Chelts-rhj

2. Chapter 2: Eyes Meet by Chelts-rhj

3. Chapter 3: Sudden Silence by Chelts-rhj

4. Chapter 4: Sudden Heat by Chelts-rhj

5. Chapter 5: Don’t Wish, Don’t Start by Chelts-rhj

6. Chapter 6: Wishing Only Wounds the Heart by Chelts-rhj

7. Chapter 7: Blithe Smile, Lithe Limb by Chelts-rhj

8. Chapter 8: She's who's Winsome by Chelts-rhj

9. Chapter 9: She Wins Him by Chelts-rhj

10. Chapter 10: There's a Girl I Know by Chelts-rhj

11. Chapter 11: He Loves Her So by Chelts-rhj

12. Chapter 12: I Wasn't Born for the Rose and Pearl by Chelts-rhj

Chapter 1: Hands Touch by Chelts-rhj

The cool metal felt slippery against Alba’s sweaty palms as she pushed her way through the crowd, the toes of her shoes dragging on the dirty concrete with a soft scraping noise that could almost be heard above the babble of King’s Cross Station. Alba bit her lip in concentration as she shifted her weight to the left, making sure the opposite forearm crutch was balanced before pulling her toes forward once again, just like always.

 

“Are you sure you don’t want the wheelchair, dear?” her mother whispered from behind. Alba waited a moment for a large man carrying several suitcases to clear out of her way before pushing forward again.

 

“You heard the Headmaster, Mum.” She said. Right. Left. Right. Left. “There are too many stairs. I’m doing fine-“ but as the words left her mouth the right forearm crutch landed on a slick patch, and she listed wildly, scrambling to find balance on unsteady legs.

 

She fell.

 

Burning shame filled Alba’s eyes with tears. She’d been so excited to get her letter, so determined to prove that she could be a good witch, just like her mother, and yet she couldn’t even make it to the platform on her own. There, on the floor of the train station, she despised her little legs and knobby knees, the thick glasses resting crooked on her nose, and the two fingers on each hand that refused to straighten.

 

“Alba,” her mother said softly, bending down to look her in the eye, “don’t cry. You’ve got nothing to be ashamed of. You’re the strongest person I know. Stand tall.”

 

Stand tall. Easier said than done. But as Alba painstakingly pulled one leg, and then the other, up off the floor, she lifted her chin a little higher. Left. Right. Left. Right.

 

The platform was looming ahead, deliciously close. She saw a family in front of them: mother, father, a boy her age, one a little younger, and a little girl bouncing on the black shoes of her father.

 

“They say it’s best if you take it at a run,” the red haired woman was telling the oldest boy.

 

“It’s true, worked for me and your uncle,” the father added.

 

Alba blanched. Running was not something she’d been able to accomplish yet. Stand tall, she thought, pulling her crutches in a little closer and straightening her spine as much as possible. Running was probably overrated anyways.

 

“Mummy, Mummy,” the younger boy interrupted. “What’s she got them for?” He was pointing a pudgy finger to the contraptions strapped to her arms. Alba smiled.

 

She loved when children asked about her. They were so astute, so ready to learn about the things they didn’t understand. She preferred their honest curiosity to the gawkers who slyly tried to hide their interest with furtive glances and hushed whispers to others.

 

Predictably, both parents looked in the direction their son was pointing, and quickly away again as they caught sight of Alba, mouths gaping open in search of the right words.

 

“They help me walk,” she replied for them.  “’Cause my legs don’t work so well.” She glanced back at her mother, who smiled at the adults in front of them and gave a slight nod as though to say, ‘It’s ok. She gets this all the time.’

 

“Woah!” the older boy said, rushing forward to inspect the shiny metal. “You’re like a robot! Grandad’s told me all about robots!”

 

She wasn’t sure what a robot was, but it bothered Alba for some reason that he thought her to be like one. “I’m not a robot, I’m a girl. Just a girl.” She frowned at him.

 

His green eyes met hers, and a crooked grin spread across his face. “Hullo, just-a-girl. I’m James Potter!” And he thrust a hand towards her.

 

Not breaking eye contact, she let go of the lower metal bar of the crutch and took his hands with the three fingers she could, pinky and ring finger remaining curled into her palm.  “Alba Williamson. Nice to meet you, James.” He glanced down at her hand only for a moment before vigorously shaking, and she laughed as the tremors made their way up her arm, crutch banging about wildly between them.

 

“Likewise.”

 

Stand tall, she thought. I can do that.

 

“Come on!” he was tugging slightly on her hand, urging her forward towards the brick wall between platforms 9 and 10. “We’ll go together.”

 

His perfect hand was warm in hers, unlike the cool metal bar of the crutch. His smiled widened as she took a step forward, and he didn’t seem to mind that she had to borrow his strength to keep her balance now that crutch was dangling from her forearm. He matched his pace to hers, and, hand in hand, they crossed through to platform 9 ¾ and boarded the Hogwarts Express, Alba’s head held high, smile beaming out for all to see.

 

 

 

 Six Years Later

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Alba stared out the window of her compartment, looking drearily into the drizzling rain as the Hogwarts Express rushed onward towards Hogsmeade Station. Her forehead was pressed against the cool glass, a nice change from the muggy interior of the compartment.There were two other people sitting across from her: a fifth year Gryffindor girl engrossed in a copy of Witch Weekly and a Hufflepuff boy she remembered at her own Sorting. She thought his name was Edward, but there was no telling. She only had one class with him back in third year, before she’d dropped out of Divination, and names weren’t exactly her strong suit. He was slowly nodding off, and occasionally he would jerk back and knock his head against the padded cushion.

 

Not very interesting conversation.

 

She took a crossword puzzle book (a muggle indulgence she’d picked up from her father) out from the bag beside her and started on the first mini-riddle, quill held snugly between her contracted hand.

 

3 Across, 12 letters, beginning with T- to be infatuated or obsessed; in a state of nervous excitement.

 

She chewed on the tip of the feather, glanced back at the compartment door, then tried to focus on the page again.

 

Infatuated, hmmm…love sick…taken, no not long enough… She went through a short list of synonyms in her head before laughing aloud softly and writing:

 

TWITTERPATED

 

In the tiny little squares.

 

The compartment door opened and James stood gallantly in the corridor beyond, puffing out his chest to show the tiny silver badge emblazoned with HB. Admittedly, it did look rather nice framed by his scarlet and gold shirt, not that she’d ever admit it to him. His head was quite big enough already.

 

“Very nicely done,” Alba said instead, grinning as he took the seat next to her. Since he’d been made prefect in their fifth year, he often burst into the compartment proudly showing off his shiny badges. She often wondered if he went down the whole train bursting into other students’ compartments waiting for the one she was it. It was probable. Best friends did those kinds of things. The chocolate frog he tossed landed in her lap nicely, pre-opened for convenience sake.

 

“Here you are. Figure I owe you for keeping me in line all these years,” he teased. He sat with one leg tucked up under him so that mud from his shoe stained the butt of his nice pants.

 

“You’re right. It hasn’t been easy.” The chocolate tasted wonderful after such a dreary day.

 

They quickly began to regale one another with tales from over the summer, though the funny ones came from James. She’d spent the summer with her nose in books, and while he had a penchant for a good mystery novel every now and again, reading wasn’t exactly James’ specialty.

 

Without fail, the conversation turned to the topic everyone had been waiting for. The Triwizard Tournament.

 

“Who do you think will try for it?” Alba asked. She desperately hoped that none of her friends would. Most participants ended up severely injured at least once.

 

“Not sure, really. Father practically forbade me from entering myself, but that’s just his memory talking. It’s not like I’d be transported to a horrid cemetery and used to bring back my arch nemesis, would I,” he pouted a little.

 

“You’ll be hard pressed not to. I mean, you’re of age, Head Boy, and as there’s already been one Potter to win it, everyone will be begging you to.”

 

“You’re right. Maybe I’ll tell dad they forced me to put my name in.”

 

“He’ll know you’re lying.”

 

“He’s horrid at reading minds.”

 

“I thought you said it was Occlumency that he was taught in school?” she asked.

 

“It was.” He shoved his own chocolate frog into his mouth whole, cheeks bulging.

 

“That’s not reading minds. That’s keeping someone from reading your mind,” Alba insisted.

 

“Same thing,” he managed choke out through the chocolate.

 

“I just expressly proved that it is not, in fact, the same thing!”

 

The girl with the magazine let out an exasperated sigh. “Don’t let Chandra hear you arguing like that, Potter, or she’ll think you two are an old married couple.”

 

Alba blushed. The conversation died off, and Alba tried to busy herself with pulling school robes from her bag. It was about time to change anyways.

 

“Right then.” James cleared his throat. “Speaking of my lovely lady, I guess it’s about time I find where’s she’s run off to.” With a wave and smile he slipped back through the door.

 

Chandra. Long mahogany hair that curled slightly, vivaciously curved, Keeper of the Gryffindor Quidditch team.

 

Alba pushed her left arm through the dark sleeve of her robes without problem, but stared at the thin, bony limb that served as her right for moment before continuing. Chandra, his lovely lady. She straightened her arm gingerly and shoved it through the hole, breathing a little easier when it was tucked back safely against her side again. Hypotonia was a pain, literally and figuratively. Though, cerebral palsy in general was like that. The hypotonia was just especially annoying while dressing. Or undressing.

 

Open crossword. Chew feather.

 

23 Down, 4 letters, ends in Y- to greenly covet

 

ENVY

 

They’d gotten together at the end of fourth year, but it had been a long time coming. They were both in Gryffindor, both loved Quidditch, though she was on the house team and he was not. He was good at flying, no doubt, but he always insisted that with his father being the youngest Seeker in the past century, and his mother playing professionally, he didn’t want to live under the comparison. Still, when James looked at Chandra flying in the air his eyes widened, and his mouth parted as though in awe of her. He studied her with subtle kind of ferocity. It wasn’t lost on Alba, the difference between her and Chandra. When James looked at Alba, it was with a small smile, without pity, but without longing. And she attempted to mirror that lack of attraction for years, though it had become harder recently.

 

The Hogwarts Express let out a loud whistle, and the hiss of the brakes was heard over the rain as they slowed. She figured she had enough time to look at one more clue as she waited until everyone else got off the train before shuffling through compartments. She tended to go slower in the narrow space and clog traffic.

 

37 Across, 6 letters- let these be these; that is to say, in the past

 

BYGONES

 

She needed harder crosswords. Edward and ‘the nosy one’ both stood, ready for departure. Before exiting Edward turned and threw over his shoulder, “Will you be needing any help?”

 

It was kind of him really, but it irked her, so the smile was forced. “No, thank you. I’ll manage.”

 

He nodded and left. She sighed, and waited for the passing throng of people to die down before standing again, getting ready for what was coming. It had been quite awhile since she brought crutches to school, the calluses on her wrist from the forearm guard long faded. She’d found that increased physical therapy and an occasional strengthening solution got her through just fine on most days, but the ground would be slick with rain, and while her ankle braces and shoes both had Anti-Slipping Charms on them, there was only so much instability she could take before tumbling down.

 

Stand tall, she reminded herself. It had become her mantra in stressful times, and she often chanted it internally when climbing the stairs to Ravenclaw tower, repeating one word after the other as she ascended until she came to the bronze eagle waiting to test her mind.

 

After reaching an exit, Alba looked out over the dreary trail winding its way up towards the castle, glowing windows like tiny yellow stars descended from the sky. She paused for a moment to appreciate the beauty. From this vantage point, the lakes reflection of the stars and school melted into a grayscale of dark shadows and highlights, mixing into each other like a watercolor painting. She tried to memorize every detail before making her way to the stone castle.

 

Most of the carriages had already left, but two stayed, students talking animatedly before climbing in. She could make out James holding the door open for someone in a skirt. Chandra took his hand and climbed aboard, disappearing from view. The three boys standing beside him jumped into the other carriage and it bounded off rather quickly.

 

Not wanting to be left behind, she hurried forward, splashing mud up the front of her robes. James was looking about with a frown on his face, no doubt realizing that Alba had missed a carriage.

 

“Wait,” she called out. It was tiring, running through the mud, and she felt her chest tighten, breath coming in sharps gasps as she pushed forward.

 

James turned back to the carriage, his mouth moving. Alba strained to hear him, losing concentration on the unstable ground beneath her.

 

The Anti-Slipping Charm broke, and she landed with a squish in the mud. Her thick sneakers were met with the muck, and it had begun to seep inside the ankle braces strapped beneath them.

 

Too used to falling to be stunned for long, Alba twisted around so her legs, knobby and uncoordinated, were to the right, with her weight supported on her strong left arm. The braces, though disgusting at the moment, did their job, and she was able to get a firm foundation with one leg before attempting to go completely upright.

 

It didn’t take too long; by the time she was standing James was halfway to her.

 

“That was a good one,” he yelled, running nearer.

 

“I’d give it a 6 out of 10,” she admitted, pointing at the hardware strapped to each leg. “Nothing broke, so I suppose I could’ve done better.”

 

“True, true,” he said, offering her a hand.

 

His palm was just as warm as it was seven years before. Though she had made leaps and bounds towards independence in that time, he still walked slowly with her, more than willing to lend her his strength should ever she need it. He never looked at her with pity. Never fretted over whether she was all right after taking a tumble.

 

With his help, Alba made it over to the carriage. Chandra’s dark head of perfectly done curls was sticking out of the door, sour expression puckering her face.

 

“She’s disgusting! Everything will be ruined; I don’t want her ride in here!” she shrieked.

 

James’s mouth dropped open in shock, but Alba snorted.

 

“Are we witches or not?” She let go of James and pulled her wand out of the bag at her side, pointing it directly at her soiled robes. “Scourgify.” The spell worked perfectly. All of the mud vanished. Her bracers were clean again and her hair wasn’t plastered to the side of her face. The pristine black robes settled neatly on her shoulders, and her glasses were cleared of all smudges. Chandra was the one with her mouth open now. James smiled at the floor like a parent trying not to laugh when their toddler cusses, hands clasped behind his back. Alba felt a few drops of rain fall, and looked up at the sky before addressing Chandra. “Now if you’re done whining, shall we press on? I would hate for you to get wet.” 

 

End Notes:

Thanks for stopping by! I have 11 chapters I’ll be posting pretty regularly before you have to wait awhile for anything. I’m doing everything on my phone so the formatting is a little off, but I hope you enjoyed! Thank you TidalDragon and GryffinDuck for all the help. 

Chapter 2: Eyes Meet by Chelts-rhj

 Alba was the first to exit the carriage, fresh Anti-Slipping Charms on her shoes, socks, and braces. She didn’t look back as she made her way up the wet front steps, wincing slightly as she climbed. James was behind, his hands full with the ‘lovely lady’, but she continued through the entryway without him. She’d heard enough prattling on the ride over. The boys who arrived before them held the giant oak front doors open, and she nodded at them in thanks.

 

 

The castle was as stunning as always. Walking over the threshold sent relief flooding through her, washing away all the tension after such a long journey. She breathed deeply, taking in the smell of fresh polish, old parchment, and the thrill of learning. It had been like this for her every year: the excitement, the intoxication of euphoria. This was where she belonged, where her worth wasn’t based on the sturdiness of her body, but on the usefulness of her mind.

 

Breathing easier, she smiled at the brightly colored House Hourglasses before her, watching as a few yellow stones ascended, some Hufflepuff or other winning the first house points of the year.

 

Her stomach gave a gurgle and she pressed onward, heading for the open doors of the Great Hall, eager to sit down and start the feast.

 

Almost all the teachers were in their respective places, Hagrid and Grawp undoubtedly still ushering in the first years, and she passed by the Slytherin and Hufflepuff tables quickly, nabbing a seat at the end of the Ravenclaw table before someone else did. She generally liked to be one of the first to leave the Great Hall after the opening ceremonies. When dealing with stairs, it helped to have a head start.

 

Not to mention, there was no one else sitting around the end of the Ravenclaw table. While it practically guaranteed she’d end up surrounded by first-years later, it gave her the privacy to pull up her robes and examine her left leg. With James running towards her after the fall and being stuck in the carriage with him, she hadn’t had the chance to examine it before.

 

Sure enough, there was a rather bad cut half way up her calf, deep enough to hurt, in spite of the Pain Relief Philter, and while the wound had been cleaned efficiently with the cleaning spell, there was now a thick trail of bright red working it’s way towards her blue and bronze socks.

 

While still bent under the table, she groped for the wand in her pocket. Though she was of age, it was still against school rules to perform magic outside of the class or common room, and practically all the staff were at the opposite end of the Hall.

 

It took some finagling, but she finally managed to wrestle it out of her pocket and point it down a the cut along her leg. Alba gave it a little prod, but just as she was about to utter a spell, there was a rather pointed ‘ahem’ let out from somewhere behind.

 

James was standing behind her, arms crossed, robes bouncing slightly as he tapped a foot at her. The Head Boy badge glinted in the floating candles, and he glanced down at it pointedly as Alba sat up, scowling, and put her wand away.

 

“Oh, come on James, you know I was only going to heal it,” she insisted, turning away from him to scowl at the empty goblet before her. Where are those little brats? She wondered.

 

“You should’ve told me you were hurt. We could’ve fixed it out there and gone straight to the hospital wing.” His voice was grim, and she could imagine his facial expression hadn’t changed either.

 

“You’re being ridiculous, Potter. We both know I can do it myself just fine.” She refused to look at him, and prayed he hadn’t found the problem.

 

“Stop trying to act all high and mighty, Williamson.” She grimaced. James only saved her surname for when he was especially annoyed, even if she did use his first. “I’ve known you too long to play these games.”

 

“I’m not playing games...” she offered weakly in a whisper, but the game was up and he knew the score.

 

“ ‘All care should be taken by the patient to refrain from bodily injury, especially that of the affected muscle, in the case that it be severely compromised. Regular doses of Pain Relief Philter may make it difficult to sense the severity of injury due to the continually nullified synapsis-”

 

“Alright, alright!” she interrupted. He really didn‘t need to quote the entire thing.

 

“Need I continue?” he demanded, coming around to shove his grim face in her line of sight.

 

Alba didn’t realize he had ever even read the papers the Healers had given her over the summer, much less memorized them. Though she supposed he’d had plenty of time at St. Mungo’s while she was sleeping.

 

“No. I’ll go to the bloody hospital wing after the feast.” she grumbled, finally meeting his gaze.

 

“I’ll save you a plate, and you can go now,” he countered, green eyes practically pleading.

 

“I prefer my potatoes fresh, if you don’t mind,” she retorted, ready to argue until the first-years came in. She was willing to bet it wouldn’t take long.

 

“We’ll go to the kitchens,” he offered, voice rising slightly to tempt her all the more.

 

She scowled again, too stubborn to fall for it. “You’re Head Boy. Kitchens are off limits.”

 

She celebrated an internal victory as he frowned, obviously going over the moral dilemma in his head. She could picture it now, his need to follow the rules and set an example warring with his impulse to get her to the hospital wing.

 

Just as she planned, the side door opened and Hagrid walked in, gray beard wild and unbrushed. Alba turned and smiled sweetly at James, peering up at him as he towered above her. “Well, look who it is!” she exclaimed. “The Sorting is about to start, I guess it’s time for you to go sit down now.”

 

The triumph in her chest was almost drowned out by the disappointment and worry that bloomed across James’s face as he shook his head and walked past her to sit with his fellow Gryffindors, but only almost. There was enough left over to leave a smug grin on her face as the tiny new students came filing past.

 

 

 

As she predicted, by the end of it, she was surrounded by the little things, though since she was sitting and not walking, they only stared at her hands through the corners of their eyes, and not her legs too. Unfortunately none of them actually had the courage to ask her what was wrong, though if they did have it, they probably would’ve ended up in Gryffindor.

 

She was halfway through her second helping of pork chops when a thin, dark hand rested gently on her shoulder. Alba looked up to see the steel grey eyes of Professor Pimbly, her head of house, staring down a rather bulbous nose. Alba’s spirits fell at the stern look on the woman’s face, and she swallowed loudly, putting her fork down as the tall woman spoke.

 

“Potter tells me you’re in need of medical attention,” her voice was steady and slow, tone measured to absolute neutrality. “Please don’t make me send someone to escort you.”

 

Finding no need to reply, Alba picked up a napkin, wiped at her mouth, and stood.

 

“Use the contraptions, please, Ms. Williamson,” Professor Pimbly added quietly from behind. She had the knack of being heard whether she spoke up or not, and so did not raise her voice any.

 

Alba’s breath caught in her throat at the command, for that’s what is was, ‘please’ or not. She had worked long and hard to be rid of the ‘contraptions’. The woman had no right to force her to use them, head of house or not, but still Alba stopped, took the light blue bag from off her shoulder and sifted through the contents until she found them, the two tiny metal sticks that were, or at least would be, her forearm crutches.

 

She took out her wand quickly, angry that she was allowed this piece of magic in the Great Hall, but not the useful spell to actually heal her. Silently she enlarged them, slipped her wrists through the cuffs, and gripped the cold metal handles, looking straight ahead the entire time, making a conscious effort not to let her head drop, lest someone thought it was in shame. Stand tall, she thought. It won’t kill you.

 

Alba waited for the sound of Professor Pimbly's retreating footsteps before turning and glancing back at the table closest to the wall of the Great Hall.

 

Her eyes met with James’s for just a moment and she glared at him, a little satisfied that he looked half as miserable as she felt, mouth pulled taught, obviously ignoring the smiling mates he had about him.

 

Served him right, turning her in to Pimbly. With a slight shake of her head she turned back around and headed out the doors, one crutch and foot after the other.

 

 

 

 

 

“My goodness darling!” Nurse Wainscott cried upon seeing Alba, crutches and all, slide through the Hospital Wing door. “I didn’t expect to see you until tomorrow afternoon!”

 

Alba spent quite a bit of time with the older woman throughout the school year. Nurse Wainscott kept in regular contact with her Head Healer at St. Mungo’s and directed her physical therapy and medicine while at school. While she loved Nurse Wainscott, and the woman was always good for a crossword, Alba wasn’t happy to see her a day early.

 

“Yes, well, I took a tumble while on my way up to the castle,” Alba paused to hop up on the nearest cot as the rather large woman bustled over to get a good look at her, “and I’m afraid I may have poked myself with a spoke.”

 

She knocked on the long, flat, metal piece of her brace sticking up out of the shoe.

 

“Little more than a poke you got there," the Nurse Wainscott said, carefully removing the shoe, sock, and brace to examine the area in its entirety.

 

“Well, it looks like you’ll have to back off the Philter and Solution for awhile, dear,” she murmured quietly before taking her wand out and running it slowly over the area. “Don’t want to interfere with its healing. With how much Pain Philter you’ve been taking, your body may not even realize you’ve cut yourself yet, see how it isn’t even starting to scab?" she pointed at the edges of the wound, but Alba didn’t know what to look for anyways. “The Strengthening Solution will pose a problem as well. I’m afraid healing it with a spell now will make your muscle tissue more fibrous in that area, and I don’t want to cause any irregularities. I can seal the skin of course, but if you take more Strengthening Solution before the body is done knitting the muscle together, you’ll just rip it open again. You’re going to have to be on your own for awhile, and as for therapy...”

 

The woman trailed off, fully aware of how the news would affect her patient.

 

Alba was staring straight ahead, blank faced as the nurse examined her limb. She often felt detached as Healers did their thing, and she imagined that they were detached as they did it, too. Examine the skin, the muscle, the neurons, not her.

 

Nevermind that she’d been working for months to get rid of the damned crutches, nevermind that she’d be set back in physical therapy for weeks if she waited for the dumb cut to heal, nevermind that she’d have to start back at the beginning with the Pain Philter doses.

 

Examine the skin. Examine the muscle. Examine the wound. Forget the girl.

 

Alba bit back tears as Nurse Wainscot went to get the Strength Drain Drought, the antidote for Pain Philter, and the antiseptic.

 

Cerebral Palsy: 1

 

Alba: 0

 

First score of the season.

 

 

 

 

 

Thirty minutes later, Alba was leaned against the door to the hospital wing, breathing deeply and trying to get used to her body again. Her legs were wobbly, unsteady on the shiny floor, and she had to work more on pulling them forward. She gripped the crutches on either side tightly, the strained muscles in her hands already beginning to ache without the Pain Relief Philter. It was starting to seep into her calves too, but she set her jaw and pushed forward anyway, tears long since dried and gone.

 

Alba thought about the ups and downs of the medicine they put her on as she made her way through the hall. When it worked, she got to be almost normal, but if she ever had to quit or cut back for some reason, it was much worse. The Pain Relief Philter was relatively new, the treatment having just started over the summer during an evaluation stint at St. Mungo's. She never realized how much of a difference it made until now, though she was used to cutting back on the Strengthening Solution. And this time? It was James’s fault. The thought left a sour taste in her mouth.

 

The hallways were empty, so she went as slowly as she pleased, pausing to rest after a the first flight of stairs by one of her favorite portraits. The painting normally showed a round old man with red nose and cheeks, white thinning hair, lounging around a sitting room in his pajamas. He was normally good for a laugh, but tonight he was elsewhere. When she peered into canvas, there was only a slightly cackling fire there to greet her. She didn’t stay long.

 

The next two flights of stairs passed by in silence, but as she started up the third, she heard the staccato tapping of high heels.

 

Alba groaned, loudly, and tried to hurry, but before she could make it to the top and find a hiding place, a rather anxious looking Chandra popped out from around the corner.

 

Chandra frowned a bit, eyebrows drawing together over penciled in eyes at the sight of Alba making her way up the steps alone.

 

“What are you doing out here?” she asked. Alba was surprised by the genuine tone, and at the fact that the girl had actually addressed her directly.

 

“Just making my way back from the hospital wing, why?” she was a little suspicious. Alba had a perfectly good reason to be making her way upstairs, but why was Chandra going down?

 

“I was just going to look for James,” Chandra answered, glancing down at the hands fiddling with the end of her shirt. Of course she was.

 

“Well, I’m sorry. I haven’t seen him,” Alba told her, ready to continue with her journey and forget about the fact that the lovebirds needed to meet up outside of the common room on their first night back in Hogwarts. Alba started climbing the stairs again, hoping Chandra would just move aside.

 

Once again, Chandra surprised her. “I’m sorry,” she blurted out from the top of the staircase, “for earlier, I mean... I know it must’ve sounded...rude.”

 

Alba nodded slowly, eyes wide, for a moment before saying, “Uh... well... thanks,” lamely and continuing back up the stairs. At this point, she just wanted to make it to the common room in one piece.

 

Though, apparently the girl wasn’t done. “He cares about you a lot, you know...” Chandra practically whispered as Alba passed her, heading down the hallway towards Ravenclaw tower.

 

Alba stopped in surprise, one crutch on soft padded carpet, the other on the marble landing of the stairs. She glanced back just in time to see the sad look in Chandra’s eye as she disappeared quickly down the steps. The entire exchange had been uncomfortably odd.

 

Absolutely puzzled, Alba continued the her journey in a daze, replaying the strange event over and over in her head until she actually took a wrong turn halfway to the common room and had to turn around.

 

Eventually she found herself at the shadowy foot of Ravenclaw tower, many, many steps separating her from the Bronze Eagle that would deliver her to sanctuary.

 

Alba took a deep breath, steadied her balance, and climbed the first of many steps upwards. Stand-

 

Thud, thud, thud, a thunderous noise sounded behind her and Alba had just enough time to brace herself before large, beefy hands latched under her arms and lifted her high into the air.

 

“Damnit, Benjamin Honeypucker, put me down!” she yelled, echoes bouncing off the stone walls around them.

 

His deep laugh was the only reply, and as he put her down on his shoulders and bolted up the stairs, she grabbed a fistful of sandy blonde hair in one hand while trying to beat him with the crutch held in the other. The metal bounced off his thick shoulders and he laughed more, taking the stairs two at a time in spite of the extra weight.

 

Alba bounced around from her seat on his shoulders, trying to let the indignity of it all keep her from having fun. The last thing Ben needed was a reason to do it again, and if he heard her laugh, she’d never make it up, or down, the tower on her own again.

 

When they reached the top, he wasn’t even out of breath, and Alba did admire him for it, if only a little.

 

“Ow, quit!” he begged as she poked the side of his head with the rubber tipped crutch, again. “Stop it or I might drop you!”

 

She immediately desisted, and he took the final step towards the door, waiting for the Eagle to pose it’s question.

 

“From what do all beings run, and no beings hide?” the knocker finally asked.

 

Delighted that it was such an easy one, Alba grinned triumphantly, then looked down at Ben to see how he was doing with the query.

 

His broad brow was furrowed, little age lines popping up, and his jaw was working, though she couldn’t hear anything. Her grin widened as she realized he was mouthing words, probably repeating the riddle to himself. He didn’t know the answer.

 

“Let me down, and I’ll tell you what it is,” she said happily into his ear, eager to get back on the ground.

 

Benjamin Honeypucker was probably her only real friend beside James, though the fact didn’t sit well with the boy. In spite of towering over her, he was a year younger than she was, and Alba was perpetually rejecting his advances. The blatant and shameless flirting had taken her off guard at first, but she found it easier and easier to ignore as the years passed. In fact, it was actually starting to become a little endearing.

 

“I don’t know about that...” he said, craning his neck to look up at her. “You’re looking pretty good up there.”

 

She couldn’t help but laugh and shake her head as he winked with one deep brown eye and turned back towards the expectant eagle. Ben was always good at making her feel better, and had an undeniable knack for turning up at just the right time. Though she’d never admit it, he’d done her a huge favor by taking her up the steps.

 

“Ah ha!” he finally exclaimed before answering simply, “Death.”

 

“Took you long enough,” the Bronze Eagle spouted before swinging forward to let them in.

 

Alba beamed down at Benjamin proudly as he let out a hearty ‘woo hoo!’ Turning around and bending forward so that her head didn’t bang the door frame as they passed under it, Ben knew from experience it was easier to get the crutches in if they went through backwards.

 

Alba was having a bit more fun than necessary,what with  holding onto Ben, trying to angle her crutches through the door, and concentrating on maintaining her balance. It lasted only a few moments, but a giggle escaped as she passed under the stone archway.

 

Her face lifted, casually glancing back out the way they came when she saw him: a tall, solemn figure on the last stone step. He was leaned against the wall, a plate of desserts in one hand, wand in the other, watching with a sour face before quickly turning to go back down the steps. 

 

The door slammed closed, hiding his retreating figure, and Alba didn't go after him, even after Ben sat her down on a chair and bid her goodnight.

 

It was difficult for Alba to believe, but if James’s expression had been the clue to a crossword, jealousy would’ve been her best guess at the answer.

 

End Notes:

Thank you so much for stopping by! Any and every comment is welcome. 

Chapter 3: Sudden Silence by Chelts-rhj

Alba woke just as the first pink rays of sunlight filtered through the tall, narrow, stained glass windows of the dormitories, setting the room ablaze with vibrant colors. She lay in the bed for several moments before sitting up, stretching her good arm, and gingerly massaging the other. Everything was always so stiff in the morning.

 

Momentarily forgetting the events of the previous day, she carelessly swung her legs over the side of the bed, flexed toes meeting with the stone cold floor. She gasped a little at the pain in her leg, looking down to see the nasty cut she’d gotten from the day before.

 

Thankfully, the thing had scabbed over, though now that the Pain Relief Philter was completely out of her system, she could feel an ache deep in her muscle. It was quite a bit deeper than she originally thought.

 

“Alrigh’ over there?” a groggy voice whispered from the bed next to hers, yawning at the end of the question.

 

Maude Strensall was a quiet, introverted girl who happened to be a ridiculously light sleeper. Unlike most of the girls in her year, Alba actually liked Maude, though their interactions were generally strictly academic. They often partnered together in classes, when necessary, and during their fifth year studied religiously together.

 

“Yeah, I’ll be all right,” Alba said, deciding she didn’t quite want to stand up yet.

 

“Do you want me to get the potions from your trunk? That looks pretty nasty...”

 

Alba closed her eyes and took a deep breath before pushing up from the bed to stand on her own two feet.

 

“Nope. Not taking them right now,” she whispered back.

 

Maude looked at her, sleep still evident in her eyes. “Why not? You always take them in the morning.”

 

Alba frowned and used the edge of her bed to half limp towards the washroom. She felt a little guilty for waking Maude up every morning. “Well, I’ve had to stop for a little while. Maybe you’ll be able to get some sleep in the morning.” She tried to throw a smile in her direction, but suspected it looked more like a grimace.

 

The girl persisted. True to Ravenclaw form, anything she didn’t understand needed to be questioned. “But, if they help you so much, why did you stop?”

 

Alba turned in the doorframe, searching for a good analogy. “Well, you know what band-aids are right?” she asked, pretty sure Maude was muggle born.

“Yes,” she said hesitantly, propping herself up on the blue covers with her elbow.

 

“And when you were little, did your mom ever tell you it needed to breathe?”

 

She nodded, a little life coming to her face as she woke up a little more.

 

“Well, at some point, you just pull off the band-aid, and it hurts, but then it’s over, and you’re relieved. You heal. The potions are my band-aid, and my leg,” she looked down at the angry red mark in her calf, “it needs to breathe.”

 

“Oh,” Maude yawned again, and Alba stifled one herself. “That makes sense I suppose. Well, good morning, Alba.”

 

“Good night, Maude,” she whispered as the girl fluffed her pillow and laid back down, pulling the blue curtains closed against the bright morning light.

 

 

The descent down the stairs was a little more terrifying than the prospect of going up them. It was more tiring to go up, but if she slipped and fell, it was a long way down. Not to mention the danger it would pose to her wand. The idea of it snapping in two sent shivers down her spine.

 

One after the other, they flew by until she had two feet and crutches set nicely on the floor. Now she only had the half dozen staircases to make it to the Great Hall.

 

Twenty minutes later Alba sat at Ravenclaw table stuffing her face with toast and eggs.

 

Cerebral Palsy: 1

 

Alba: 1

 

Things were looking up.

 

“Ms. Williamson,” Professor Pimbly called, making her way down the Ravenclaw table with a handful of parchment, “your class schedule.” She put down one stack and pulled a long, single sheet of parchment from within her deep green robes. “Will you be submitting your name into the Goblet of Fire in October?”

 

The woman’s voice stayed completely neutral and she did not bring her dark brown eyes up from the page. Alba could only stare incredulously back.

 

After several moments, Professor Pimbly lowered her paper. “I only ask because you are taking quite a few classes. I’m advising everyone in my house with a full schedule to refrain from entering. I would hate for a competition like this to affect your ability to pass NEWT exams.”

 

“I don’t think you have anything to worry about with me, Professor. Even if I did enter my name, I’m sure the Goblet could find a much more suitable candidate.”

 

The front doors of the Great Hall opened and a gaggle of Gryffindors strode in, yawning and stretching. James was in the back, hair sticking in all directions, Head Boy badge glinting in the sunlight streaming down from the enchanted ceiling.

 

“A single thread in a tapestry cannot know its worth, Ms. Williamson. Don’t sell yourself short.” Professor Pimbly picked up the large stack of schedules and made her way back to her seat at the staff table. Alba snorted, reaching forward to dish out some oatmeal.

 

James pulled out the seat next to her, sitting down with a huff. Alba glanced over at him, chewing a large mouthful of eggs. Now that he was close, she noticed he had bags under his eyes and a little toothpaste dried to the corner of his mouth.

 

She continued chewing, resisting the urge to ask how his night had been. She didn’t need a play by play. From the looks of things, he and Chandra had quite the reunion last night.

 

“I’m sorry,” he grumbled, reaching to take a small triangle of toast from her plate. “I’n thorry Pinly ma’e ‘oo go wif your cruthes.” The words were thick and slurred after pushing past the mouthful of bread.

 

“Yeah, that wasn’t exactly the dignified return to Hogwarts I’d been hoping for.” She still didn’t look at him head on.

 

“Well, you can hang up your dignity. Every now and again you have to recognize that something is wrong. You can pretend to be normal all you want, but when push comes to shove, you are not just a girl, Alba.” Now that he’d swallowed, James was more intense, focused on her. Apparently he’d been holding this in for awhile.

 

“I’ve been trying to tell her that for years now, mate,” Ben said, taking the seat on her other side.

 

“Not now, Honeypucker,” James snapped.

 

“I have just as much a right to sit here as you do, Potter. More actually, since this is actually my house table.” Ben looked rather dignified, and began piling mounds of eggs onto his plate.

 

“Sit here, sure. But stay out of our conversation,” James grumbled.

 

Alba was torn between annoyance and amusement. To her knowledge, the two had never really interacted much before this, though apparently no introduction was needed.

 

“James,” she said, finally looking up at him, “you’re right. I’m not normal. I know that. But there was no harm in me waiting until after I’d finished a nice meal to go and get help. I checked it out when I was sitting down. I knew it wasn’t life threatening. I’m capable of deductive reason with my other senses." He opened his mouth to argue, but she pressed on. “I didn’t hear a crack when I fell, so there were no broken bones. I saw that there was a puncture, but if I’d severed an artery I’d be squirting blood, and if there was total separation of a tendon or ligament then the limb wouldn’t be functioning properly, Pain Relief Philter or not.” She left out the part about if she’d actually have gone through with healing it there was a possibility of permanent increased density of the muscle. That would be counterproductive to her argument.

 

James thought about it for a moment before replying quietly, “I can’t use logic like you do. I see blood, something’s not right. You know I’m ok with falling, and new treatments, and tripping down stairs, but blood is fair game for me to go all ‘you have to go to the hospital wing’. I’d do the same with Albus, and you know I’m right.”

 

He did have a point. “Fine. Blood’s fair game. But no more turning me into the authorities.”

 

“Only if you’ll promise the same thing,” he countered, grinning.

 

The moment was interrupted by a loud belch from behind. Alba glanced over her shoulder to catch Ben hitting himself in the chest with a rather satisfied grin on his face.

 

“That felt good,” he sighed, reaching forward for another drink of pumpkin juice.

 

Alba couldn’t help but laugh. That’s what happened when you hung around guys all the time.

 

James seemed a little disgusted. “Well, I’ll be off now,” he said, pushing the seat back and heading towards the scarlet and gold table.

 

“I agree with him you know," Ben said. “You aren’t just a girl. You’re much more than that."

 

“Thank you, Ben.”

 

“So will you go out with me now?” he tried again, eyebrows bouncing up and down with his head as a smile crept to her face.

 

“No, Ben. For the fifty-sixth time, I will not go out with you.”

 

“Why?” he asked, uncharacteristically. Normally he allowed her to change the subject, or deflected with a joke. She took a moment to think of the words.

 

“I‘m not the damsel in distress for a knight in shining armor like you. I’m not that girl. I‘m the old librarian in the back that no one notices. The cat lady. The only ‘romance’ I’m interested in is situated between Paranormal and Sociology in the library. Autobiographies are in another section entirely.”

 

“I disagree,” he offered, a mischievous light glinting in the corner of his eye. “I think you’re afraid.”

 

She snorted. “I’m not afraid of anything, Ben.”

 

He cocked his head a moment, eyes searching hers, as though trying to find a bluff. Alba was being honest, however. She didn’t think there was anything to be afraid of.

 

“You know what they say,” he finally said, turning back towards his plate. “Fifty-seventh time is the charm and all.” Now back to normal, the previous rejection bounced off. “What classes have you got this year?” She handed him her schedule, finishing off the last of her toast as he commented on how brutal NEWT level double Transfiguration was bound to be.

 

It was good to have things back to normal. With both of them.

 

The rest of the day was rather uneventful. The start of NEWT year reminded her of the start of OWL year. All the teachers felt it necessary to give them speeches on how important this year was for determining the rest of their lives, and how much they would regret slacking off later if it meant they couldn’t get into the training programs they needed. As though they could forget how difficult it was going to be.

 

She hadn’t told anyone, not Pimbly during the career consult, not Nurse Wainscott in all their hours of physical therapy, not even James, but she wanted to be a Healer. Mend bodies, heal lives. Do everything for others they never could do for her. The idea was intoxicating, really. Maybe one day, she’d even figure out how to help those like her.

 

Transfiguration, Charms, and Defense Against the Dark Arts had always been rather easy for her. Memorization of incantation, annunciation, and wand work, comprehension of theory, practical application, all of it was simple. Potions and Herbology, however, had been proving to be increasingly difficult.

 

Now that she was in the advanced classes, time restraints were often given to make a potion, pre-cut/crushed/skinned/peeled ingredients were not allowed, or would not yield the commendable results she needed in order to be accepted into St. Mungo’s. By the time she’d managed to pin down jumping pods, or pull the skin off a shriveled slug, there wasn’t enough class left for it to brew properly. It was ridiculously frustrating, but she expected no special treatment, and none was given. If it came down to getting an antidote to a patient in a timely manner, she needed to be proficient, at least.

 

Herbology was just plain difficult to manage. It was hard enough to crush up dead things in Potions, but wrestling with the live ones for ingredients was even worse. She’d gotten her first detention in Year 3 Herbology with Professor Longbottom after purposefully catching a Devil’s Snare on fire for pulling her forearm crutches out from under her. It had been the seventh time that period. She also thought it to be rather useless for her chosen career. Alba didn’t understand why it was required in the first place. Botanists, yes. Healers, no. It wasn’t as if she’d be going out the hospital garden and wrestling with the venomous greenery while someone waited in a hospital bed. Even the thought was ridiculous.

 

Astronomy was her one indulgence. It had nothing to do with her preferred career, but she absolutely loved the stars. At first, it had been an attempt to have an excuse for wandering about at night, but she’d found the systematic charting of the sky to be rather relaxing and inspiring at the same time. Beautiful, really. Constantly changing...

 

By the end of the day, after another long lecture about NEWT level Potions from Professor Pimbly, Alba limped towards the Hospital Wing to check in with Nurse Wainscott before heading off to dinner. Normally she would do a therapy session, but as the cut wasn’t healed, she doubted there would be any exercise today. Maybe some stretching though, if she could convince the older woman that she felt alright.

 

“Oh, Alba!” she called, waddling a little as she bustled towards the open door. “Hop up here dear, and let me take a look at you.”

 

Nurse Wainscott’s hair was all made up, two french braids twisting her graying hair into a crown atop her round face. The rest of the cots were empty, and so her full attention was turned on Alba.

 

“You’re looking a little pale. Out of breath at all? Let’s see your wrists. Any bruises from using the crutches today? Yes, looks like the left. Of course, it would be the left though, wouldn’t it. I’ll be checking your iron, young lady, and the white blood cells, of course. Have you been coughing at all?”

 

Alba sighed, not ready to deal with the onslaught. “A little out of breath yesterday, but with the raining and all, you know how it gets difficult to catch my breath sometimes. No coughing though, productive or otherwise.”

 

The mini-examination was a quick run through. Iron and white blood cells were fine. Respiratory functions normal.

 

“So, how about we do some stretching? I’ve got some kinks that could do with a workout,” Alba hedged, trying to ease into the idea of completing a full session.

 

Nurse Wainscott’s wrinkled eyes flashed above her bifocals. “Young lady, don’t try to fool me. I told you last night you’re not to do any physical therapy until this heals up.”

 

“But look,” she insisted, pointing to the red crusty scab, “it’s healing, so can’t you just dab some dittany on it and get it over with? I mean, the Solution is out of my system, so no harm done, right?” As they were alone, she didn’t try to hide the desperation in her voice.

 

Nurse Wainscott didn’t answer at first, and Alba knew better than to press her further. The woman was kind and patient, but when she gave you a treatment plan, it was difficult to convince her otherwise.

 

“I can use dittany on it now, yes, but I’d still prefer you wait two to three weeks before you start taking the Pain Philter and Strengthening Solution again. We’ll start up the therapy after another three days-” Alba groaned, flopping back against the thin mattress as the woman continued, “-to make sure the muscle adjusts well.” Her voice was grim, uncompromising. “That’s the deal take it or leave it, missy.”

 

Alba threw an arm over her eyes and grumbled, “Fine. I’ll wait.”

 

Dinner was wonderful. Maude sat next to her, and they discussed whether or not their schedules would be compatible again for revision sessions this year. Maude had continued taking Arithmancy, while Alba had not, and Maude intended to use her late afternoons to do major overviews, while Astrology kept Alba from being around.

 

“Well, why don’t we just see how it works out,” Maude finally said, finishing off the last of her steamed vegetables. No salt or anything. The girl was odd.

 

“Yeah. Not even sure how much studying I’ll focus on Astrology anyway,” Alba muttered, starting to consider dropping the subject altogether.

 

“Have you decided what you’d like to do once you leave here?” she asked, picking up her bag filled with books and standing, her mouse brown hair pulled into a ponytail.

 

Alba blanched a little at the prospect of admitting her ambition, but refrained. “No, I haven’t the slightest idea,” she muttered through a forced smile. “I’ll see you back in the common room.”

 

“See you,” Maude called over her shoulder as she left with a wave..

 

Perhaps Alba had lied to Ben. There was something she was afraid of, rational or not.

 

“I just don’t understand why you’re so upset,” she heard a familiar voice say from behind. James sounded a little exasperated, and Alba wasn’t the least surprised to see he was talking to Chandra, standing up towards the end of the Gryffindor table, as though on his way out.

 

“I’m not upset, I just don’t understand why you’re being like that,” she replied, hands on her hips, mouth pursed, eyes pulled together over a fuming face.

 

“I told you, I’m not going to enter.” James said in a cool and calm voice, as though he was hardly interested in continuing their conversation. As far as Alba knew, the two didn’t fight often. To see them arguing in the Great Hall was an anomaly at best, and yet there they were stalled in the great doorway of the Hall.

 

“You’re the best chance this school has,” Chandra continued, her voice more charming than acidic now. He did have a way with people, James did. “You weren’t named Head Boy for nothing, darling. Who else could take your place?”

 

Dawning crashed on Alba. They were talking about the Triwizard Cup. She took her lip between her teeth, biting down to keep her mouth shut. This wasn’t a fight she needed to get involved in.

 

“Why don’t you try for it? You’re just as likely to be picked as I am, only you’d probably enjoy it more. Just imagine the look on all your sisters’ faces-”

 

Chandra’s snappish demeanor was back, “Don’t be ridiculous James. I’m hardly Triwizard material, and we both know it. Two of them entered, so it’s not like anyone expects me to do any better. So I can zoom around on a broom, you can do that and more.”

 

At least the girl didn’t have an ego issue, Alba admitted to herself. Though why she was getting on to James for respecting his father’s wishes was a mystery to her.

 

“Come on now, Chandra.” He pulled her out of the doorway to the corner of the Great Hall. A little further, but still in hearing range. “I think you’d be a wonderful champion.”

 

The girl shook her head. “If I enter, but you don’t and lose, everyone will know why.” She was stubborn, that’s for sure.

 

Alba cringed and glanced away as James lifted his hand to brush her shoulder. “You’re being ridiculous. So what if your sisters already tried.”

 

There was silence for a moment, and Alba, fearful of peeping on them snogging, continued to avert her eyes.

 

“So you’ll enter then?” she heard Chandra ask eventually.

 

“If you do?”

 

“We’ll go together.”

 

Alba closed her eyes in concentration, imagining how James would sound rebuffing her again. It took her a moment to process his response.

 

“Alright.” Alba jerked her head up, watching him smile and nod down at Chandra.

 

Now Alba was concerned. People got hurt in the Tournament. People had died. And not just in freak undead-Dark-Lord-rebirth deaths either. Judges and participants alike had been killed before. Sure, there were a few more perks nowadays, but not many. Not enough to make it worth it.

 

“Really?” Chandra asked, the pleasant surprise evident in her tone.

 

Alba stood, quickly, and hobbled over. “James, you shouldn’t.”

 

He looked up quickly, surprised, then a little angry. “Have you been listening this entire time?”

 

Alba blushed, stuttering a little as she cleared her throat, “Well, I -er uh... no. Not all of it. Just caught the -uh the last bit.”

 

Chandra folded her arms across her chest, bouncing a leg up and down. James threw her a pointed look, and then focused on Alba. “Well, why not? Anyone else has just as much a chance as I have. How do we know it isn’t random in the first place?”

 

“But your father-”

 

“Isn’t living my life,” he interrupted smoothly, reverting back to his tradition calm and calculating tone. He grinned one of those half-smiles at her and took a hold of Chandra’s hand, prying an arm loose. “Everything will be fine, Alba.” Chandra couldn’t see the wink he threw to Alba as they turned to leave, but the whole exchange made her uneasy. “Trust me.” He finished, walking past.

 

Shaking her head, Alba turned away and finished what was on her plate, polishing off another helping of carrot cake before heading back to the common room, bookbag digging into her shoulder as she climbed staircase after staircase.

 

When she reached the bottom of Ravenclaw tower, there was no exuberant sixth year to carry her up the winding stairs. The disappointment she felt annoyed her, and the stupid mantra brought her no comfort. Stand tall, she thought, dragging one foot after the other. I don’t want to just stand tall. I want to run...

 

End Notes:

Thank you for keeping up! I appreciate all feedback. 

Chapter 4: Sudden Heat by Chelts-rhj

The next two weeks went by rather quickly. The third Thursday morning of the semester Alba strapped the braces on before the sun rose without any pain, finished the last six inches of a Transfiguration essay with Maude before heading down for breakfast, and wasn’t out of breathe by the time her forearm crutches touched the last step of Ravenclaw tower.

 

It was a beautiful golden autumn evening with a strong wind blowing leaves across the grounds. She entered the Hospital Wing in good spirits, waiting just inside the door for Nurse Wainscott to finish with a small first year crying on the edge of his cot.  

 

He held in his hands the remnants of a wand, broken and splintered in the middle. There was a knot on his head, quickly shrinking, and after a few moments the violent red mark was completely gone. The tears dried up quickly after. 

 

“Shh, my boy,” the plump old woman cooed, patting him gently on the back, “you aren’t the first young lad to break  his wand the first few days of school, I assure you.” She winked at him, warm wrinkled eyes shining with kindness. 

 

He snuffed, running the back of his hand across his nose, and hopped down, his robes dragging a little on the floor. 

 

Alba smiled encouragingly as he passed, though his eyes remained on the ground. 

 

“I remember the first time I broke a wand,” she said quietly as the door closed, hopping up on to the vacated cot. 

 

“You didn’t cry as much as he did,” the nurse muttered, chuckling a little as she tucked away a small vial and rolled up the edge of Alba’s robes. “Well now!” she exclaimed, turning her leg about. “That looks beautiful, it does. I think you’ll be ready to do a little more than stretches today.” She pushed her glasses up her nose with a slightly pudgy finger, squinting at the clock on the wall. “However, we don’t have time. So for today, just do your stretches please, Ms. Williamson, and I’ll get you a bit of Strengthening Solution. May be able to put away those crutches today, if you don’t push yourself too hard.” 

 

The day was going too beautifully to be marred by impatience, so she reveled in the fact that tomorrow would be different, instead of focusing on the disappointment of not having the time to do it all today. 

 

Hogwarts was buzzing with anticipation. The other schools would be arriving soon, though whether it would be before or during the Halloween Feast ‘depended on the weather’ Headmistress McGonagall had said. Naturally, as the feast was a week away, most of the student body took that as ‘any moment’. First years could be seen gathering in twos and threes, bracing themselves against the winds as they searched the horizon line for signs of the giant carriage from the front lawn, or huddling together at the edge of the Lake, looking for the long mast of an ancient ship. 

 

The entire school came alive. Paintings were renovated and unusual meals were popping up on the dinner table, as though the elves were trying exquisite dishes. 

 

“You have to try the bouillabaisse,” James told her at dinner that evening. “My aunt makes it, and it’s heaven. Nothing compared to this though!” 

 

She laughed, leaving her crutches behind for the first time in weeks as he took her hand, half dragging her over to the dish at the Gryffindor table. 

 

Albus smiled at her, shoving a bite of the stuff in his mouth as well. It seemed to be some kind of seafood soup.

 

“What’s it taste like?” she asked, eying what looked like a shell. Seafood had never exactly been something her parents cooked. She would eat fish, on occasion, though never actually tried shellfish.

 

“It’s good! Just try it!” James said again, offering her a spoonful. Chandra leaned over to the side a little, eyes bugged out, lips tight. She shook her head a little, quickly, darting a glance back at James before repeating the motion. 

 

A little uneasy, Alba closed her eyes, parting her lips slightly. 

 

As the contents of the spoon tipped into her mouth, Alba gagged. Something slimy slipped onto to her tongue, and she snatched a napkin off the table before spitting it out. 

 

“Ugh! That was awful! Why would your aunt make that for you?” Alba was wiping her tongue off with the linen, as though it could wipe away the memory of that awful, squishy feeling.  

 

“I told you it’s disgusting!” Chandra threw in James’s direction, giggling a little at the Potters’ stunned faces. “I tried to warn you,” she added, smiling at Alba. 

 

“Wha’ is wrong wif yoo?” Albus said with a full mouth of the stuff, incredulous. “Dis is off-some!” Apparently the bad taste was genetic.

 

“You witches just don’t know what you’re missing,” James said, pulling the spoon back and shaking his head. He set his bowl down in front of him, wrapping his arm around it as though trying to protect its feelings. Alba snorted.

 

“That was awful. You made me eat snot.” The chicken looked good though, and she was eager to get started on dinner. 

 

“It was probably some clam,” he insisted. “You get used to it!”

 

 “I don’t like things I have to ‘get used to’ in order to like. That’s Stockholm Syndrome.” 

 

 “I thought Stockholm really smart and cool,” James answered defiantly. 

 

Alba sighed, turning her back on him in shame. “That was Sherlock Holmes, the fictional detective.”

 

“Oh yeah!” James exclaimed before taking another bite of the grotesque concoction. 

 

The Great Hall suddenly exploded with noise, little kids running around like chickens with their heads cut off, up the tables and towards where the staff sat, most of them in the middle of their meal. 

 

“They’re here!” a little girl shrieked as she ran past Alba, her dark black braid bouncing behind her. 

 

Alba turned and looked at James, a grin spread across his face.

 

“Save me a spot?” she asked, glancing back to where her crutches were leaned against the Ravenclaw table. Couldn’t just leave them there. Especially not if people were going to be jostling her about.

 

“Sure thing!” James exclaimed, grabbing Chandra’s hand and waving for Albus to follow him. 

 

She shuffled as well as she could between the excited students as they all hurried towards the grounds. She was only a few inches taller than the first years, some fourth and fifth years a good head above her, which made it difficult to keep her eye on the damned things. Eventually she found her crutches, inserted her arms, and started waging through the crowd. 

 

“Excuse me, dear,” a warm voice said in her ear. Ben smiled, bending down to her level. “I do believe we may be able to find your compatriot faster with a better vantage point. He pointed to tops of his shoulders as though expecting her to climb aboard. 

 

“Don’t think so, Ben. Then no one behind us will be able to see!” Not to mention, she didn’t necessarily want to be in that position again. 

 

“Suit yourself,” he said, straightening to his full height, and scanning over the top of the crowd. “Looks like it’ll be Durmstrang. Potter is over by the lake.”

 

They followed the current of student bodies out the front doors to stand by the lake. The wind tore at her cloak, and Alba pulled her blue and bronze scarf closely about her neck to ward off the chill worming it’s way through her collar. As they got closer, the crowd became less inclined to move aside, and Alba might not have made it through if Ben weren’t there to part the crowd. 

 

True to his word, James and Albus were standing with their legs spread wide, arms on hips in order to make sure she had room near the front. With Ben it was a rather tight squeeze, but he stayed mostly behind her to make room. Otherwise there would have been plenty. The deck emerged from the inky black depths of the lake just as she arrived on the rocky beach. 

 

The ship was beautiful, in the way decrepit old houses are. Barnacles clung to the bottom, like boney protrusions, and the wood creaked as it surfaced. There was a great swell of water, and the tide rose to wash over the toes of Alba’s shoes, bringing in a new layer of sand, mud, and seaweed with it. She laughed a little, excited to see what the foreign school had to offer as far as competition. 

 

“Do you think they’ll bring any girls this time?” Albus asked Ben. Alba frowned, a little distracted. Al and Ben were in the same year. Maybe that’s why James knew of the boy.

 

“Don’t know. How many years has it been since one entered?” Ben asked.

 

“Three tournaments ago,” Alba answered. She’d done the research. 

 

In addition to her class studies, Alba had been looking into previous Triwizard Tournaments, figuring out the statistics of which tasks encompassed what, as well as strategies of the winners. If James was going to be entering, she needed to know what was coming. Knowing meant you could make plans, and plans were what helped you succeed. 

 

James was not good at planning. He was plain terrible at it. And she was bound and determined to help him in any way possible from the sidelines. 

 

There was a loud splash as an anchor was dropped, plummeting down into the dark depths as a plank was lowered to the shore. 

 

Just in time, the Hogwarts staff arrived, students parting out of the way as they walked, single file, towards the beach. 

 

Alba glanced back towards the ship, where a tall, dark, rather imposing man was leading a procession towards Headmistress McGonagall. 

 

“That’s Viktor Krum,” Ben leaned to whisper to her. James leaned back to look at him behind her. 

 

“How do you know him?” James asked, the question barely carrying past the wind. 

 

“My dad followed Bulgaria back when they were in the finals for the World Cup. He always used to defend Krum’s decision to catch the snitch early against Ireland,” Ben explained. 

 

“Oh, that’s cool. You know he went with my Aunt Hermione to the Yule Ball when he was in the Tournament?” Albus chimed in. 

 

 Ben’s eyebrows rose incredulously and Alba rolled her eyes. 

 

 “I want to know why he’s out here leading the procession and not the Head of Durmstrang,” Alba muttered. 

 

Chandra seemed to be the only other one taking things seriously. “I agree,” she said, glaring at him as he smiled at McGonagall. 

 

The spot James had managed to procure was close enough to hear the exchange. 

 

“I hope you vill excuse us coming early, McGonagall,” the man said with a deep, accented voice. “I just could not vait to see it again,” he clasped her wrinkled hand in both of his. 

 

“You’re welcome, of course Viktor, or should I say Professor Krum?” Her compliment was evident in the genial tone of her voice. 

 

“Viktor, Viktor,” he insisted, laughing. As he shook his head, Alba noticed his nose had been severely broken in the past, making his face look more like a painting than anything else. 

 

“Well then, Viktor. Where is Headmaster Voda?” she asked, quite curiously, turning back towards the castle. 

 

The other students were filing down the plank now, removing jackets and caps. She tried to analyze them as they filed past while straining to hear Professor Krum’s answer. 

 

“Vell, I vas chosen to be Guide unanimously by our, our -eh prospective entrants.” She caught him say before walking away. 

 

The first two off the boat were average looking seventeen-year old wizards. Dark hair, dark eyes, the shadow of stubble gracing their chins from being in a boat for who-knew-how-long. The next was fair haired, a little taller, but thinner. They continued, facial expressions normally genial, observant as they took their first view of the castle and grounds. 

 

Finally, a smaller figure made it’s way down the platform to the rocks. This time as the hat came off, a tumble of wild, dark hair exploded from within, as though happy to be breaking free of its prison. Immediately, the girl thrust her fingers into it, dividing it into sections before beginning to intricately braid it on her way to the castle. 

 

“James!” Chandra gasped from behind Alba. 

 

Everyone turned quickly at the panic in her voice. Alba expected her to point out some creature in the depths, but she looking straight down. 

 

Her breath came in uneven gasps, as she stared at her shoes, the toes wet between the rocks of the shore. 

 

“Oh, damn,” James finally said, giving an exasperated sigh and rolling his eyes in frustration. 

 

For some reason, tears were starting to fall down the girl’s face. “Scourgify,” James shouted after extracting his wand from his robes. “There. No harm done, now let’s come on.”

 

She was still staring down at her shoes, little shuddering breaths escaping. Her scarf was being undone, the end blowing in the wind with her hair. 

 

Alba’s hands were starting to go numb, and she really wanted to go inside. The girl was being ridiculous.

 

“I can’t. It’s everywhere,” Chandra whispered. 

 

“Hey,” James bent down, taking her gloved hands in his, brushing her bangs out of her face in an attempt to get her to look at him. “I’m right here. And you’ve got about,” he glanced back, “a total of three steps before you’re back on the dry patches. I promise you.” Her eyes finally peeked out. “I will clean it off as soon as we get there.” 

 

Alba was a little nonplussed as she watched the exchange. How in the world was a seventeen year old Gryffindor Quidditch Captain so much of a ditz she was in tears over getting her shoes dirty? It’s not like they were anything special!

 

“What’s her problem?” Ben leaned down to whisper as the girl closed her eyes and took one step forward.

 

“I’ve absolutely no idea,” Alba responded.

 

As both shoes landed firmly on the ground, Chandra began hysterically, “You said that we wouldn’t get wet, James. You said it was clean. You said- you said-”

 

He wrapped one arm behind her back and walked quickly up to the castle, murmuring to her softly as Albus, Ben, and Alba fell in line behind. 

 

“I know, I’m sorry. I didn’t think that the ship would raise the tide like that.” For reasons Alba didn’t understand at all, he began apologizing. “I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have brought you out there.” 

 

 

“I’ve got to clean them. I’ve got to get to the door, and clean them. They’ve got to be clean!”

 

Alba slowed, giving them space as they ascended the first staircase. Ben and Albus followed her lead, simply watching as they wandered off. 

 

Alba looked at Albus. “How long?”

 

“Since the beginning.”

 

“Full blown OCD?”

 

“Not really, from what I know. More like panic attacks. It’s the little things. Doesn’t swim. Doesn’t like rain, or water. When you get sick she goes out of her way to avoid you. Natasha once complained she stayed out all night scrubbing a stain in her shirt with a toothbrush. Remember last year when she forfeited the the second match of the season during that awful storm? She didn’t do it for ‘team safety’.”

 

Ben whistled. “Does she melt down like that often?”

 

“Eh, every now and again. No one really bothers her about it though. You know everyone’s got their own issues...” he glanced down at Alba’s crutches a little awkwardly before clearing his throat. “Welp, I guess I’ll be heading up.” He gave a salute, knocking his feet together comically before taking the stairs two at a time. 

 

Alba felt a little bad for Chandra on her way up. Now the whole mud incident seemed a little more reasonable, if not rational, and the remorse felt afterwards genuine. And their argument, in the great hall? If she had responses like that to getting a little lake mud on her shoe, how was she supposed to compete? James was wrong, she wouldn’t stand a chance.

 

The Durmstrang students were the sensation of the school through the week, surrounded by students in the halls wherever they went. Alba heard it from Maude that Professor Krum was sitting in on Ancient Runes classes, as that was the subject he taught back at home, while the girls swooned over rugged, if aging, features, and the boys drooled over his history. Previous Triwizard participant, Quidditch prodigy, and friends with the famous, like Ginny and Harry Potter, and the Weasleys. 

 

Alba had two Durmstrang students in her Herbology class: the attentive girl and the thin blonde boy. They did not appear to get along very well, and occasionally broke out into heated whispers in what she supposed was Bulgarian, or Romanian. Languages weren’t exactly her strong suit. 

 

It was difficult to size up their potential when compared to James in Herbology. While his grades had been fairly good in the class, it wasn’t an overall accurate assessment of his worth as a contestant. She’d rather have had Transfiguration or Defense Against the Dark Arts with them. 

 

The week went by quickly, and as the days ticked by one by one, Alba could feel the anxiety rising in her chest, filling her with tension. With the cut finally completely healed and all restrictions lifted, she threw herself into physical therapy, letting the focus and drive of stretching out her muscles again distract her from the worry. Halloween Night, the night of the Feast and the official start of the Triwizard Tournament, Alba was especially rigorous in her exercises. 

 

“You need to be gentle with yourself,” Nurse Wainscott chided when Alba asked for another round of stretching. She knew better than to ask for a full second work out. “You did work rather hard today, though...” she sighed, and Alba could tell that she hadn’t quite made up her mind. 

 

“You see, it’s just that I’m a little stiff. Rather than up my Philter, I’d rather stretch it out tonight, and up the dose tomorrow morning.” The logic was sound. Stiff could mean a lot of things, most of them good, and stretch would keep any of the acid from damaging the cells, and making it sore. Not that she’d feel it in her current state. Waiting to take the Pain Philter would ensure that the evening stretching session didn’t go too far, while lowering the current levels enough to up the base dosage at the beginning of the day. It took time to build up in the system properly, and they’d lost quite a bit of ground. On the train ride, she’d felt almost no discomfort at all. 

 

Finally she nodded. “Alright then. Get started on it. But bring out a puzzle, I’m in the riddling mood.” 

 

Alba smiled, tucking a stray strand of hair behind her ear. It was getting long, past her chin. “Alright. I’ll be needing a haircut soon you know,” she said, pulling on the end that hung down past her ear. Alba preferred a short A line cut, the longest pieces on front falling to her chin. Unfortunately, it was in that odd halfway point between her chin and shoulders.

 

“Why don’t you let it grow out, dear,” her voice was warm. “You could do it up all pretty for the Yule Ball. Something new!”  

 

Alba held up her hands, eyebrows raised. “I can hardly braid my hair on a good day, and you’ll be too busy readying yourself up to help me! Not to mention, I don’t plan on going dancing with this hardware.”  She knocked on the braces, straps, and metal spokes hidden behind knee high socks. Her mother’s idea. 

 

“Well, you never know. Maybe one of those handsome Durmstrang lads will be wanting to sweep you off you feet!” Nurse Wainscott teased, her laugh causing her to bounce on the spot merrily. 

 

Alba couldn’t help laughing. “That’ll be the day, won’t it? That would be the day,” her voice trailed down at the end, in spite her effort to stay lighthearted. 

 

“Do you have your eye on anyone in particular then?” the older woman asked, misinterpreting the change in mood. 

 

“What? A Durmstrang boy? No, no. Not for me, thank you.”

 

“Any others in particular then?” she pressed on. 

 

“No,” Alba said resolutely, “And I’d like to keep it that way, matchmaker. Goodness! You’d have me married off before I took my exams, wouldn’t you?” She picked up the soft, padded pillow and tossed it at the Nurse playfully. 

 

She caught it, set it down on an adjacent cot, and plumped it up a few times. “Not before your tests, but perhaps shortly after, maybe.” The smile pulled her plump cheeks upward, so that her eyes were lost in wrinkles behind the gold lined bifocals.

 

They both laughed a little, the sound finally winding down into silence as they each contemplated the future. 

 

“I’ll be alright,” Alba whispered. “I know you worry about  me, but I’ll be alright.” 

 

The nurse smiled weakly, and clasped Alba’s hand in her own, smiling sadly. “I know you’ll be alright. You refuse to be anything but!”

 

The door burst open, and James came in, out of breath. “There you are! They’re here, come on!”

 

Chapter 5: Don’t Wish, Don’t Start by Chelts-rhj

Alba couldn’t help but smile at all the festivities as she rushed into the Great Hall behind James, one crutch banging around as he pulled her forward. The excitement of everything reminded her of when they were children, and she took in the new decorations with a vapid ferocity.

 

There were certainly many, many more candles than usual, red and blue flames dancing among the sea of white that hung over the heads of the amassed student body. Large banners with the crest of Beauxbatons and Durmstrang hung amidst the usual House Colors. The Great Hall was truly breathtaking.

 

Hogwarts was always picture perfect in her opinion, but this term was special. Somehow over the years she’d fallen out of love with magic, added it into the ordinary routine of life. This year, with everything sparkling new and dripping with the thrill of change, she was falling head over heels for the castle again. James glanced behind, his face just as radiant as she felt. It was infectious after all.

 

The students from Beauxbatons were sitting in twos and threes at all four tables, as the Durmstrang students had over the week. The deep red and pale blue of their robes was a charming accent against the black Hogwarts uniforms.

 

“It’s got to be about time,” James muttered, glancing at his watch and continuing towards their tables.

 

Maude and Ben waved her over and she broke off to join them as he slipped past. She surveyed the staff table before sitting down. The smaller man with a few grey streaks in his thick, wiry beard must be Voda, while the incredibly large woman sitting next to Professor Hagrid was certainly Madame Maxime. She’d heard the two had been an item for decades, though neither one was willing to leave their respective schools. As she watched, Hagrid turned to smile at her, reaching out to take her hand.

 

“Glad you made it!” Ben called to her from halfway down the table.

 

“Have I missed anything?” Alba asked, raising her voice over the ruckus to be heard.

 

“Not really,” Maude answered. The girl was either oblivious to the noise, or incapable of raising her voice.

 

“How many did Beauxbatons bring?” Alba asked, this time directing her question towards Ben as she took a seat between the two.

 

“About 14,” his deep voice cut through babble. Alba realized for the first time the boy had rather aged over the summer. He’d always been tall, but now he seemed... broad. More... full. She squinted at him, catching the hint of blonde stubble growing under his chin. A five o’clock shadow. Who would’ve known little Honeypucker could grow such a thing? Though, as she thought about it a little more, the fact that she could see the underside of his chin better than his forehead when sitting next to him served as a clue to exactly how ‘little’ the boy was. Boy? Guy? Guy. Guy seemed more appropriate now.

 

“Why are you frowning at me?” he asked suddenly.

 

Alba laughed, certain she’d looked rather odd staring at him, brow wrinkled, ends of her mouth turned down. “Nothing, really,” she finally managed to get out. “It’s just that you need to shave.”

 

Ben gave her a dirty look before reaching forward to examine his cheek in the back of a spoon.

 

“I think McGonagall is ready now,” Maude said, nudging Ben to get his attention.

 

Sure enough, the headmistress had stood, her sharp, wrinkled eyes passing over the crowd. Immediately, the noise dropped, anticipation rising. She’d aged quite a bit over the years, gray hair going white in some places, her skin hanging down in bags. Her mind though, was as keen as ever, and you could see it in her gaze. The respect she drew was well deserved, and even in her old age she stood straight, proud.

 

“Thank you for your attention,” her clear voice rang out. “I would first like to introduce you all to our guests of honor this year.” She gestured to her right, where Madame Maxime sat at the end of the table. “Would you please give a warm welcome to Madame Maxime, of Beauxbatons.” The woman stood, nodded slowly as the students began clapping, and then took her seat again. “And to Headmaster Voda.” As he stood, Alba realized he was a little taller than she had first imagined. Not as tall as the Madame, but not short. He was wiry, like his hair, all thin, as though he’d been stretched out as a boy.

 

He, too, gave a nice bow before sitting down. “As well as to one of the Guides for this year, Professor Krum.” Now there was an explosion of sound, cat calls, and a few dramatic cries of ‘Bulgaria!’.

 

McGonagall turned her head sharply away from the waving figure of Krum to scowl at the student body until they quieted down.

 

“Thank you,” she said again, this time a little more sternly. “Now, as I’m sure you are all aware, this year, Hogwarts will be host to a competition known as the Triwizard Tournament. It is named so, for the sole reason that three students, one from each of the participating magical schools, will compete against one another.” She turned, nodding to Hagrid. During her speech, he had risen and moved towards the door on the end. Now he opened it, disappearing inside before returning, a large, glowing golden goblet in his hands.

 

“The participants, of course, are selected from names submitted into the Goblet of Fire. When the Tournament was first introduced, there was no restriction on who could enter. However, the events proved too dangerous for the under-aged students. Death was the most likely outcome, and as such, it was decided to rigidly enforce an age restriction upon entrants.”

 

She dipped her head to survey them over her spectacles, her voice going grave. “Do not take entering your name into the Goblet of Fire lightly. There will be no withdrawing, and the road ahead of you will be incredibly perilous.” She lifted her head, cleared her throat a bit, and continued.

 

“Measures have been taken to ensure that students will receive the appropriate help. Therefore, once selected, the Triwizard Champion will nominate one teacher from his or her school to act as Guide through each of the Three Tasks. Unlike the Head of the participating schools, this Guide will have no knowledge of the tasks, and only act to ensure that Champion’s prospective plans are safe and effective. The Champion may then elect one student from their school to serve the role of Companion. The Companion must also be of age, though they will not be competing directly in any tasks. This role was implemented to cut back on the prospect of ‘cheating’. The Champion will have access to a trusted source of information, their Guide, as well as someone to help them practice, the Companion. Any other involvement of staff or students is considered to be against the rules.”

 

Alba nodded to herself. The Guide and Companion Clause had been added to the official Triwizard Tournament Rules after it was found out that Harry Potter had received aid from several teachers with knowledge of the events, as well as an undercover Death Eater that eventually led to the murder of co-Hogwarts champion, Cedric Diggory.

 

Auror Potter had been adamant that changes be made to the Tournament, though this seemed to have been the only concession made.

 

“Together, the Champion, Companion, and Guide serve as the Triwizard Team, though only the Champion will be braving the actual dangers presented to them.”

 

Headmistress McGonagall paused for a moment, frowned, and then continued. “Ah! Yes, the prizes. That’s where I was. Because only the Champion will facing the danger, they are still awarded 1,000 Galleons if they win. Whether or not they provide any financial compensation to the Companion is up to them, though the Guide is restricted from accepting any offers of winnings.”

 

Huh, Alba thought. Never heard that one before.

 

“The Goblet of Fire will be set up outside of the Great Hall, with security measures in place so that no underage students put their names in. It will be open until the Halloween Feast at the end of the week, at which point we will find out precisely who our Champions will be.”

 

She stopped for a moment, a smile spreading across her face.

 

“Now, I believe that’s all the items of business, so by all means...” As she lifted a hand and gestured towards her audience the plates filled with food, large golden platters overflowing with everything imaginable, and some dishes that Alba never would want to imagine.

 

“I didn’t realize that the Guide and Companion hadn’t always been a part of the Tournament,” Maude said, filling her plate up with vegetables again.

 

“Yeah, they’re kind of recent actually. I mean, the first time they brought it back with only the age restriction, Voldemort came back, didn’t he? Had to make some major changes, though it would’ve been cool to see it all,” Ben said.

 

“I’m glad they changed the rules,” Alba grumbled, shoveling a rather indecent amount of potatoes onto her plate. “It’s stupid for kids to die during a silly game.”

 

“Yeah, I guess you’re right. Still, wish I could give it a go,” Ben said longingly, chasing a pea around his plate.

 

“I’d have a heart attack if you were ever chosen for Champion, Ben,” Alba muttered. It was bad enough thinking about James, but Ben? The poor boy had stood locked outside the dormitory all night just last week because he couldn’t figure out the damned riddle again. He really did have it rough there, though. The boy could do languages, runes, and potions like she’d never seen before, but give him a riddle and he’d never get through.

 

“See, you do have the hots for me,” he teased, a crooked grin spreading across his face. There was a sandy blonde curl tumbling down from his crown to rest above the clear blue eyes staring at her. The sight took her off guard for a moment. Alba was vaguely aware of Maude’s eyes widening until they were the size of dinner plates.

 

“Wha-uh, no, Honeypucker. That’s called ‘caring about someone’. I’d feel the same way if Maude entered.”

 

“Oh, well...” the girl said hesitantly before spewing, “I think I am going to enter. I mean, why not, right?”

 

Alba’s eyes widened, waiting for the anxiety to rise to her chest. Unfortunately, it didn’t. At least, not like it did at the thought of Ben and James entering.

 

Maude just seemed too... mild for the tournament. She didn’t really think the girl had a chance.

 

“Wow,” Alba finally said. “Well, good luck then, I suppose.”

 

To her relief, the girl didn’t try and get her to do it as well. Pimbly had been insane for evening considering the possibility.

 

“When do you think you’ll enter?” Ben asked after finishing a mouthful.

 

“I figured I’d come down early in the morning tomorrow. Not really looking forward to a crowd you know.” Maude blushed at the thought of it.

 

“I’ll come with you,” Alba said between a bites of a roll. “I want to see who enters.”

 

“Alright!” she said brightly.

 

Dinner ended later than usual, the babble rising to an almost painful level before people started slowly making their way back to the common rooms in twos and threes.

 

Maude was the first of the trifecta to stand.  “Well, I think I’m done for the night,” she said with a yawn.

 

“Me too,” Alba decided, standing gingerly. She hadn’t gotten around to stretching after her therapy. It was going to be a long ascent. Maude seemed torn between staying behind and going ahead as Alba restored her crutches to full size and inserted her arms in.

 

“Would you like me to wait?” she asked politely.

 

This was one trait that Alba enjoyed in Maude. She didn’t feel it was necessary to be a constant presence, finding it was perfectly ok to go ahead while Alba dawdled.

 

“You can go ahead,” Ben said as Alba opened her mouth to reply. “I’ll go up with Alba. I have to talk to her about some things anyways.”

 

Maude’s eyes widened again, her eyebrows disappearing into the bangs that hung in a severely straight line across her forehead.

 

A weight settled in her chest, making her squirm, and she could only imagine how comical her face looked.

 

“Alright,” Maude finally said as she started towards the doors, “you two uh... have fun, I guess.”

 

Alba cringed internally, rolling her eyes at the absurdity. Does he have to give everyone the wrong impression?

 

Ben finished up what was on his plate as Alba gathered up her things. As she hadn’t been up to the common room again, she still had all of her books. The bag was heavy, and cut into her shoulder, even more dead weight to haul up the stairs.

 

He followed her quietly until they got the first staircase. The sounds of their footsteps chipped away at her patience until finally, Alba turned on him.

 

“Ok, Honeypucker. What did you want to talk to me about?” Please don’t try and and convince me to enter... she pleaded silently. She didn’t feel like listing the reasons that was an awful idea aloud.

 

“Well,” he started, running a hand through that sandy blonde hair of his, ruffling the curls that had settled on his head, “I’ve noticed that you hold hands with James, and I just wondered if-”

 

Alba blanched and launched into an explanation, cutting him off sharply. “It’s not like that, Ben. James and I are-”

 

He interrupted her, “I know, I know. You’re just friends. That’s my point. When he wants to help you, you let him hold your hand.” Alba frowned, not sure where the conversation was going anymore. Ignorance was not a feeling she was comfortable with. “I also know that you don’t like for me to pick you up.”

 

She snorted, muttering under her breath, “understatement,”  as he continued.

 

“So I thought that we might agree on a compromise.”

 

Alba stopped, her feet on two different steps half way up the staircase. “A compromise?” she asked, shifting the strap digging into her shoulder.

 

“Yes. You don’t want me to hold you, and I don’t want to watch you struggle up hundreds of steps. So, when I want to help you, you can hold my hand... like James.”

 

He turned, finally looking at her with narrowed, nervous eyes. She considered his proposal. It was true, she did prefer him not to pick her up, and she had never minded James holding her hand. It didn’t feel as... personal.

 

“Sure,” she finally relented, holding out a hand to him.

 

With a large, beaming smile, Ben accepted what she offered, and she didn’t argue as he lifted the strap off her shoulder as well, relieving her of the heavy weight.

 

Alba was surprised at the differences. She expected it to be a much more familiar sensation, his hand in hers.  Ben’s hand was bigger than James’s, broader, and more coarse. It swallowed her own, but took the edge off climbing stairs just the same.

 

Even so, the trek was still tiresome.

 

“Hey, I need a break for a second,” she said as they came upon her favorite portrait on the third floor. This time, the wizard in the sleeping cap was home and awake. He greeted her jovially, and she introduced Ben. They talked for awhile, the wizard being a very big gossip, but eventually they bade him goodnight pushed forward and upward once more.

 

“I didn’t realize you were so friendly with the portraits,” Ben teased, helping her up the last few steps from the landing above her.

 

“He was the second friend I made at Hogwarts,” Alba replied honestly.

 

Ben shook his head, that crooked boyish smile lifting one corner of his mouth. “Of course he was,” was all he said.

 

The going was slow, but they talked about the previous tournaments and Champions as they ascended one staircase after another until they found themselves at the foot of Ravenclaw tower.

 

“I think I’m going to rest for a minute,” Alba muttered, leaning against the wall and closing her eyes. Her chest was tight, a low wheeze tickling the upper lobes of her lungs as an asthma attack set in.

 

Before she could catch her breath, or think about slowing her breathing, Ben’s large hands grabbed under her arms, lifting her high above his head. He set Alba down on his shoulders, wrapping his arms around her calves and holding on to her with a tight grip just above the knees. It almost tickled as she started bouncing up and down, his long strides sending them flying up the steps.

 

“BEN! I THOUGHT WE HAD A DEAL!” She beat against his shoulders, her blows bouncing off ineffectively.

 

Her spirits sank when he didn’t reply, and she stopped the half hearted abuse halfway up. Alba was a little worried, and absolutely perplexed. He was so mercurial sometimes, it was difficult to keep up with.

 

“Different lights make me strange, for each one my size will change,” the cryptic eagle stated.

 

Alba’s brain stalled, still pondering over Benjamin’s mood wings.

 

“An eye,” he grumpily replied, reaching back to lift her up above his head before gently placing her back on the ground.

 

“Close, but not quite,” the eagle retorted, approval apparent in its tone.

 

“The pupil?” Alba asked, not sure she had the right idea.

 

“Nice teamwork,” the eagle complimented them before the door to the tower swung open, revealing the darkened common room.

 

Ben walked in without a backward glance. She considered letting him leave, but curiosity got the better of her. He had one foot on the stairs to the boys dormitory before she spoke up.

 

“I thought we had a deal,” she said forcefully.

 

He sighed, loudly, the barrel of his chest rising and falling as his head fell forward. He didn’t look back at her as he replied.

 

“Deal was I’d take your hand when I wanted to help you.” Finally he looked back at her, and she was relieved to see a little mischief in his eye. “I pick you up when I want to hold you.”

 

Alba’s eyes popped open as he bounded up the stairs, a low chuckle left behind in his haste. Surprise held her breath hostage as her brain churned over the words, repeating them over and over again.

 

I pick you up when I want to hold you. I pick you up when I want to hold you. ....when I want to hold you.

 

She wasn’t exactly sure how to handle the situation anymore. This was progressing beyond flirting into something else, something entirely new. She racked her memory for some situation that was even a little similar, and came up with nothing. Her feelings on the subject were confusing, at best, and she balked at the thought of sorting them all out. The truth was she had rather enjoyed being close to Ben, laughing with him. The only thing she didn’t like about it was her wounded pride, but that wasn’t Ben’s fault. The reaction was more reflex than logic, and she prided herself on thinking rationally.

 

Alba knew that Ben didn’t look down on her, or think less of her. She was also confident he pitied her no more than James did, so it made no sense she should feel embarrassed or wounded. It was also quite possible that he would insist on carrying her up the tower even if she didn’t have CP. Looks weren’t particularly important to her, but if she were ever asked to unbiasedly give her opinion, she would admit Honeypucker was turning out to be quite a handsome thing.

 

The door to her room was finally before her. Pushing aside any confusing thoughts, she entered quietly, in case her fellow seventh years were studying. Sure enough, all of them had their noses in textbooks or stooped over parchment.

 

She smiled, glad she had finished both her homework and studying for the evening and pulled out a crossword book.

 

Flipping through the pages, she found no empty boxes. Rather disappointed, she pulled out a sheet of parchment, and wrote her first letter home, a little bit of guilt pulling on her conscious.

 

 

‘Dear Mum and Dad,

 

Sorry I haven’t written sooner, things this year are pretty busy. The other schools are here now, and we should know who the Champions are by this time next week.

 

Classes are going well...’

 

She gave a quick run down of everything that had happened, excluding the puncture wound and Ben, and finally begged her father for set of harder crosswords.

 

‘Not that I don’t like the one you gave me before I left, it just didn’t last very long. I’d love anything you can find though.

 

Miss you. I’ll write again soon,

 

Love,

 

Alba’

 

She folded it neatly into a square and placed it on top of her trunk so she would remember to take it down with her in the morning. As she laid down to sleep thoughts of a sandy blonde haired boy danced through her head, paving the way to her dreams.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Alba, Alba,” Maude was nudging her shoulder and whispering in the darkness. “Did you still want to go down with me?”

 

“Mmmhmmm,” she managed to grumble, cracking one bleary eye at the girl standing above her.

 

“You don’t have to come if you don’t want to...” Maude said.

 

“No, no, I’m coming,” she actually managed to form words this time. Maude was a freak of nature. No one should be that coherent before the sun rose.

 

She dressed quickly, grabbing the letter to her parents on the way out the door. Much to her surprise, both Kennedy and Wilhelmina were absent from their beds. Since when was she the last one awake?

 

The descent was as terrifying as always. A nagging thought of how useful it would be for Ben to hoist her onto his shoulders refused to be pushed aside. The resulting sour face had portraits glaring back at her all the way down.

 

Altogether, it wasn't turning out to be a great morning. I wonder if this is like an emotional version of a hang-over? she thought while passing a group of witches drooling all over what had once been a game of cards.

 

As Alba followed Maude down the last set of steps, her crutches clicking and clacking as she leaned on them more than usual, she was surprised to see a crowd gathered about the Goblet. A glowing blue line surrounded it, the bystanders bunched behind it.

 

Several Beauxbaton students: A red-headed lanky boy, two blonde girls who could’ve been related, and a smaller girl with a dark bob, were waiting in single file as they dropped parchment bearing their names in one after the other. The entire crowd seemed to be holding their breath until the group crossed back over the age-line. Several students clapped and cheered, and the prospective participants sported various expressions ranging between pride and nausea.

 

“Well, wish me luck,” Maude said in that whispery voice of hers, fists clenched at her sides. The crumpled piece of paper with her name scrawled on it was trapped behind white knuckles.

 

Alba smiled encouragingly, patting the girl on the shoulder before she set off. Her father often did it to show his support in her endeavors, and she hoped that her extended three fingers were able to convey the same amount of comfort.

 

The crowd quieted again as Maude approached. A Slytherin boy cat-called as she stepped over the line, biting her lip. Alba set her mouth in a grimace, took her wand out of her pocket and discreetly silenced him, muttering the incantation under her breath. It was entertaining to watch his mouth working, confusion spreading across his face as he brought his hands to his throat.

 

Maude was a gentle, mild soul (with a rather endowed upper half), and Alba didn’t want some twerp spoiling this for her. Alba noticed Maude’s hands shook a little as she dropped the wrinkled piece of paper into the cup, but as she turned around, her face was beaming with pride.

 

“There! It’s done!” she exclaimed, a little more color in her cheeks than usual.

 

Click click click, Alba closed her eyes, groaning internally as the sound of heels came from behind.

 

“I just want to wait for Alba to come down, that’s all,” James was saying from the same general direction.

 

 “You don’t need her approval. What happened to ‘living your own life’ and all that nonsense.”

 

“She’s my best friend, and this is a big moment for me- look, see, she’s already here! No harm done.”

 

Alba closed her eyes and forced a smile to her face before looking over her shoulder. She wasn’t looking forward to the usual sight of them arguing with each other. The fake smiles as they pretended to be ‘just fine’ were rather unattractive.

 

“Hello James, Chandra,” Maude murmured. “I think I’ll just... go.” Alba’s mouth twitched. That was Maude. Not exactly the graceful type. “I’m feeling a little peckish. We still on for revision this afternoon, Alba?”

 

“Sure thing. I’ll see you then, Maude,” she replied. Alba chewed her lip a little as Maude passed the couple. If only she could follow.

 

James called, “See you later, Tentsail-"

 

“Strensall," Chandra hissed under her breath.

 

“Oh, er- Strensall.” The click click click abounded again as Chandra tapped her foot while Alba shook her head. “What?” He asked them. “It’s not like she ever gets in trouble. I can’t know all their names... Morning, Alba," James finished merrily.

 

Before she could help herself, Alba blurted, “Are you sure you want to do this? You could always, you know... not.” Yeah, but Maude’s the one without grace. Nice one, she berated herself.

 

He laughed, but Chandra did not. “I’ve got everything under control, remember?” He held up a crisp folded square of paper. “You coming?” he nodded towards the glowing line and the cup beyond.

 

“I’m fine here,” Alba said. She was further away than any of the other crowd, but she didn’t want the moment to be crystal clear for the rest of her life. Fuzzy, far off memories would be less likely to trigger emotional responses, and therefore decrease the anxiety associated with them. If he were chosen as Champion, she’d never forget this moment.

 

Chandra took his hand and pulled him forward.

 

“Come on, let’s get on with it,” she said.

 

“Oh, come on Alba. Don’t you want to get a closer look?” He resisted his girlfriend’s attempts to drag him forward easily. “This is a once in a lifetime opportunity. I think every underage kid in the school wishes they could get a closer look, even if they weren’t entering.” When she still shook her head, he pressed again. “It’ll make a great story to tell your kids one day. I mean, this is going to be history like you read about.”

 

Fair point. She couldn’t make out the cup from this distance. The runes were hidden by the magical glow of the cup itself and the age line protecting it. She’d read that the most ancient magical objects had auras about them you could feel. And this was the only opportunity she had to view it, that much was a certainty. However, the possibility of James being picked as Champion was only a percentage, and one which she was not able to calculate without bias. Therefore, the outcome that resulted into this being burned into her memory as a horrible moment for the rest of her life was not likely enough to keep her from the certainty of examining something so exquisite. Case closed.

 

“Alright fine,” she relented, pushing off of her arm braces to follow Chandra and James into the enchanted circle.

 

She expected him to be excited, but an unfathomable expression stole his features as he allowed Chandra to lead him backward. It almost seemed as if he, the great James Sirius Potter, was worried. The whole situation felt wrong.

 

A cool sensation washed over her as she crossed the blue line. The crowd was visibly and audibly more excited with the new prospective Champions. Several students began to hoot and holler as James strode up to the cup, Chandra and Alba right on his heels.

 

The Goblet of Fire was a fine piece of craftsmanship indeed. The air around it was slightly warm, buzzing with energy. The runes and English characters glowing with the promise of deep, potent magic. The hair on the back of Alba’s neck stood on end, and her blood rushed with clarity through her veins.

 

“It’s beautiful,” she muttered, lifting a hand to touch the outside of metal. It was smooth. Flawless. And while the energy around it was warming, the Goblet itself was surprisingly cold.

 

“You first, love,” James whispered to Chandra warmly. Alba’s insides squirmed at the term of endearment. “You can do it.”

 

The girl took a deep breath, closing her eyes as she lifted her hand. A few people in the crowd clapped politely as the parchment drifted down into the depths. The exchange was over in a few seconds.

 

Even Alba couldn’t deny the girl was beautiful as her face lit up with pride. James wrapped an arm around her waist and kissed the top of her head. Alba turned her eyes away, finding the age line suddenly much more interesting. Her attention snapped back as James spoke again.

 

“Alright then. Here goes nothing!” He unwrapped his clenched hand from Chandra’s waist, and held the other out to Alba, urging her forward.

 

 

Not wanting to be a buzzkill, Alba remained silent, but tried to plead with her eyes as she took his hand.

 

He winked and squished her hand tightly in his, the nails of her three perpetually clenched fingers digging into her palms uncomfortably.

 

“Trust me,” he whispered, as the crumpled slip of parchment followed Chandra’s.

 

As it disappeared into the depths of glowing Goblet of Fire, Alba let her eyes fall shut with reckless abandon, something akin to terror bubbling up from her stomach and into her chest. The other potential Champions seemed much less interesting now that the insides of her body had turned to jello. Wiggly jello. She hated jello. Alba went through a list of the possible culprits as she followed the happy couple into the Hall for breakfast. The results were less than illuminating:

 

Dread, anxiety, despair, fright, horror, alarm, panic, heartburn- most seemed fitting, though anxiety seemed to be a bit mild and heartburn rather anticlimactic. The next week was going to be longest of her life.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Great Hall was absolutely resplendent. Shining baubles of pale orange mingled with the hundreds of black and orange candles floating above the students. The buzz of their excitement showed the fervor behind the straight lines that walked towards waiting chairs. Giant pumpkins adorned the corners, some turned into jack-o-lanterns, others with wizarding hats covering their large stems. A few had both.

 

Alba stood in shocked reverence of its beauty until a particularly large Durmstrang boy bumped into her on his way to the feast.

 

She’d waited as long as possible to head down, unable to join in the enthusiasm of the others as the clock for the Tournament ticked slowly down to nothing. The wiggly jello feeling hadn’t subsided much. It was rather distracting, and had put her in quite a sour mood. Even Benjamin had been put off the last few days.

 

Her brow furrowed as she scanned the table, looking for his broad shoulders or curls. Instead, she found Maude sitting quietly with two empty chairs on either side. She took the first seat she came to.

 

“Where’s Ben?” both girls asked. There was a pause.

 

“I thought he-” Alba stopped as Maude continued, “was with you.”

 

“Huh. Well, I guess he got caught up. Weird.” Alba lifted a hand to rub the perma-wrinkle in her brow. The jello had started acting up again. Time for a crossword.

 

She was stuck on a level 2 puzzle in the new book her father had given her. She’d worn a sore into her cheek from biting it while racking her brain for answers to it’s little riddles. Her father had certainly made it a bit more difficult, though not in the traditional sense. The last puzzle had been level 4. The problem was how many cultural references graced the pages of this new one. It was a bit shameful really.

 

27 ACROSS

Hockey venue

 

 

 

From what she could tell, it ended in an A, as it intersected with 10 DOWN: Suitor, which she supposed was ‘beau’. The problem was... she couldn’t remember which muggle sport was hockey. There were football fields, with the black and white ball that you kicked at. Football had lots of chasers only allowed to use their feet and a keeper of one goal, a rather large net. She shook her head and moved on. Next was... baseball fields, with the little club where everyone takes turns being a beater...and basketball courts, where they all try to be keepers, chasers, and beaters at the same time...

 

She chewed on the tip of her sugar quill as she brooded over the answer.

 

“Alba? Did you hear me? The feast has started..." Maude’s voice cut through her mental list.

 

Blinking back to the present, Alba saw that the plates on the table were indeed filled with all kinds of steaming dishes.

 

None of them seemed appealing in the least.

 

“Oh, yeah. Uh, I’m not that hungry.” She weighed the idea of asking Maude, and finally decided to use the girls knowledge of Muggles only if absolutely necessary.

 

The dinner passed quickly, though her work with the puzzle was slow going. Benjamin’s absence pulled on her subconscious like a like a rat carrying away little pieces of cheese in the night.

 

Ah ha! she thought, raising an eyebrow as she filled in the blank little squares littering the page.

 

A hockey venue was an arena, though honestly she still couldn’t remember which one hockey was. Maybe it was the one with no keepers or chasers, and the main rule was to keep the ball off the ground ... what's it called again? Oh yes! Bally-ball.

 

She feasted on the next conundrum with a hunger her appetite lacked. In spite of her best efforts, McGonagall’s voice filtered through her concentration.

 

“Thank you all...” the woman was saying, but Alba screwed her eyes shut, clenched her jaw, and hardened her resolve.

 

 

A new puzzle caught her eye as she flipped through the pages. It was entitled “PUNS”. Now there was an intellectual puzzle. Word play.

 

 

1 DOWN:

The only ‘sir’ without a price requires secrecy

 

 

The Hall erupted in a great cheer as all the students who weren’t shut up inside their minds welcomed the entrance of the Goblet of Fire.

 

The jello in her stomach gave a mighty lurch as Alba set eyes on the thing again. Swallowing a gag reflex, she turned back to her crossword and breathed deeply, trying to ignore the tingling starting in her feet, and the fact that her breath was catching in her chest.

 

She cranked up the volume of her thoughts consciously, amplifying them in her mind until the roar of the students and the insistent tone of McGonagall’s voice faded into the background. Much better.

 

Now, where was she? Ah yes. Sirs without price and secrecy.

 

The pace was slow going. Snippets of McGonagall’s opening speech randomly seeped through. “great honor for their school,”, “respect for each other and the traditions...”, “careful in your decisions...”, until finally an earsplitting racket from every direction brought her head up, wide eyes frantically searching the Gryffindor table.

 

Cool relief flooded her for a moment as she found James smiling and clapping politely. She followed his gaze to see the blonde, tall boy from Durmstrang stand, pride beaming brightly from his face. He stood, quickly jogging up the distance to the staff table where he accepted the offered slip of paper from the headmistress and exited through the door at the end of the staff table. Alba hadn’t caught his name as it had been called.

 

Her heart beat quickened, her breath held captive in her body, as though disturbing the moment with her expended oxygen would somehow increase the chance of James walking up next.

 

Her jaw clenched painfully as another piece of parchment was thrust into the air by a violent tongue of blue flame. McGonagall’s wrinkled hand snapped out to stop its graceful descent.

 

“Pierre Roux,” her clear voice rang out.

 

Another boy stood from the Hufflepuff table, a similar expression adorning his face as a young blonde thing by his side gave his hand a squeeze. There was a little more strut in his step as he took the parchment bearing his name from the wrinkled hand, a little more narcissism in his smile.

 

Alba’s heart was on fire now, it was beating so fast. And still her breath wouldn’t come. Sweat broke out on her forehead as another flame shot forward, a piece of paper being vomited forth.

 

Time slowed, stretched over milliseconds as those wrinkled old hands undid the parchment fold by fold. Alba could see everything clearly, adrenaline sharpening her senses. A loud ringing in her ears started, the sound draining out of the great hall. McGonagall’s lips moved, but she couldn’t hear what was being said. Didn’t need to. How could it not be James?

 

Maude was shoving her, whispering something. Alba shook her head, gasping finally for air as little spots popped up in her vision.

 

“Alba, what are you doing? Go!” the girl hissed, pushing on her again.

 

“Wha-”

 

“Alba Williamson,” McGonagall called out, looking out over the student body to meet her bewildered stare.

 

The blood drained out of Alba’s face as she broke eye contact with the woman. Her head swiveled to the side on its own accord until she met the horrified face of her best friend.

 

James’s mouth hung open, eyes splayed just as wide in horror.

 

Neurons began firing after stalling in surprise. ‘Trust me’, he had said to her. Over and over again, trust me, trust me, I have it all under control. Of course he did. He didn’t enter his name in at all. Not perfect prefect Potter.

 

The worry, dread, and wiggly jello that had waited her down all week disappeared as fire roared through her veins in anger.

 

She stood, rising without ripping her gaze away from the green eyes that stared unblinkingly back. Stand tall, she thought as she limped past the rows of staring students up to McGonagall. Stand tall.

 

The piece of parchment was surprisingly warm in her hand. She didn’t even bother to look at the handwriting on the face of the thing. It certainly wasn’t her own.

 

McGonagall leaned down towards her as polite applause finally started up. No doubt started by Maude. Bless the girl.

 

“I’d like you to wait for me in my office after the conclusion of Champion Orientation. Do you understand, Ms. Williamson?”

 

“Yes, Headmistress.”

 

“Oh, and congratulations dear.” A hand fell on Alba’s shoulder.

 

“Thank you,” she lied in return.

 

As she pushed open the door the other two Champions had gone through, the answer to the crossword puzzle hit her.

 

The only ‘sir’ without a price did require secrecy. A surprise.

 

Alba snorted, though for some reason, the answer just wasn’t all that funny to her just then.


Chapter 6: Wishing Only Wounds the Heart by Chelts-rhj

As Alba stood off to one side of her competitors, one thing suddenly hit her with absurd clarity: the trophy room was entirely too reflective.

 

She missed nothing, even though she was trying to avoid everything. There, Voda’s sharp eyes shot towards her crutches (which added a nice silvery glint to all the gold of the trophies), and then back to his Champion for what must’ve been the fourteenth time. Madame Maxime had pointedly ignored her, and Alba was beginning to think she was just too short to be seen over the Madame’s bosom.

 

Pierre, the first boy who had been called, had sweat dripping down the side of his temple. The heat from the fireplace before them was hardly enough to fight off chill, much less make a boy sweat.

 

The other seemed only focused, dark eyes straight and unwavering. After watching him for a few moments, she started to wonder how he could go so long without blinking...

 

“Are there any questions?” the crack of McGonagall’s voice startled her.

 

For one ridiculous moment, Alba considered asking her to repeat the whole speech-thing again. It just didn’t seem like a valid response to the question.

 

“Then you are excused. Oh, and congratulations,” the older woman concluded. She gave one last nod to Alba before taking her leave. There was a whisper of the wooden door skating across the stone floor, a gentle thunk as it found the doorframe, and then silence. Alba tried to remember to breathe.

 

“I’m so proud of you,” Madame Maxime said as the door shut with a thud, beaming at the sweaty boy with clasped hands. Rapid French ensued.

 

Voda hadn’t bothered with English at all, but from his tone, it sounded as though the Durmstrang Head was sharing the same sentiment as Madame Maxime. The boy smiled politely and nodded, but overall they were much more formal with each other.

 

With a great sigh, Alba quietly made her way over to the door that McGonagall had used, pausing to make sure her footing was steady before shoving against the heavy oak door.

 

A torrent of sound and color assaulted her shell-shocked senses as she made her way into the bustling hallway, confirming her worst suspicions.

 

“Did you see her? How is she supposed to-”

 

“-laughing stock of the Tournament, we’ll be.”

 

“No chance. Do you think the cup is broken or something?”

 

But it was the- “Didn’t Potter enter? Why couldn’t we have gotten him?” that had her eyes burning, heating her cheeks to a brilliant red as she entered the teaming waves of students. She tried to become invisible amongst them.

 

“I can’t believe you,” a lowered voice whispered acidly in Alba’s ear as she began to climb a flight of stairs.

 

Alarmed, Alba jerked her head about, her mouth popping open in surprise at the look on Chandra’s face. “Are you really stupid enough to blame me for all of this?” she countered.

 

Hordes of students were pushing by her, and Alba tried to concentrate on the steps beneath her uncoordinated feet as they ascended the first staircase. Chandra slowed to meet her pace and continue the barrage of ignorance.

 

“You were the one riding him about his father! You were the only one saying he shouldn’t do it, and now look what’s happened.” She gestured wildly about, almost knocking the hat off of a passing second year. Clearly, she wasn’t taking the news very-

 

Alba gasped sharply as her foot sunk into the trick step half way up, along with one of her crutches. She’d forgotten all about it.

 

Chandra’s bitter, humorless laugh was accompanied by a head shake that sent her perfect curls bobbing. “We stand no chance with you as our...Champion.”

 

Though the comment stung, Alba only blinked a few times at Chandra’s retreating figure before she lost it. Without really giving it much thought, Alba pulled her wand out of her robes and let off a silent spell, binding the bottom of the girl’s slender shoe to the stair beneath it.

 

Chandra gave a high yelp and crashed to the floor a few steps above where Alba was stuck, knocking down the people in front of her and effectively stopping the flow of traffic.

 

“Yes, because I’m sure you could’ve done so much better!” Alba yelled back. Chandra had bent down, frantically trying to free her own foot. “Exactly how useful are you when not on a broomstick? Merlin forbid you get a little mud get on you, much less blood, which is likely to happen, in case you’ve forgotten the DEATH TOLL!” The clasp on her strappy heel had been undone, but Chandra was still trying to pry the shoe from the step beneath it.

 

Now Alba was laughing in a rather unattractive manner. “You’re going to have to leave it sweety. Not sure you’re quite up to the counterspell it takes to remove it.”

 

Now that she’d started, Alba didn’t want to stop. She'd never exactly liked Chandra, and now seemed the perfect moment to let everything spew out of her mouth. However, Chandra was already at the top of the steps and turning down another hallway before Alba could think of anything else to say.

 

Eventually a rather nice Hufflepuff couple helped her out of the step, and kindly wished her luck. Alba continued upwards and onwards much more slowly, painfully aware of the hissed words behind raised hands that accompanied her, and even more disgusted by the sad, pity filled smiles everyone else offered.

 

At least she didn’t run into Chandra again. Though she may have to answer for the shoe stuck to the steps...

 

The tower, her bed, her sanctuary, were so far away. Even if she wasn’t supposed to meet the headmistress, it would be another half hour before she could just slip back under the radar. And now, because of Potter, the whispers would never stop. It wouldn’t take a week, or a month, or a term for them to forget. It was history ‘like you read about’, and she was the butt of the joke.

 

As soon as she could, Alba ducked under a tapestry hiding a shortcut and opened the door pretending to be a portrait of a broken down fireplace into her home-away-from-home.

 

Once filled with an over-supply of black ink bottles, it had served its purpose-solitude- faithfully since second year. Alba had technically outgrown her little hidey-hole, but it still provided a backup of sorts when needed. The door didn’t close all the way behind her, so the “painting” in the underused hallway beyond would appear slightly ajar. Not preferable, but it would do.

 

She took in a deep breath, much like she would when revisiting a favorite book for the first time in awhile. Smelled about the same, too.

 

It was dark. Not oppressive or musty, certainly not sinister, just dark. She could open her eyes, or keep them shut, it didn’t matter. Whatever she chose, the darkness hid her just the same. Slowly, bit by bit, the weight of what she was about to encounter settled on Alba’s shoulders. She was too heavy to get up and walk or move. Too tired to stand tall, and so she sat gathering herself in the dark.

 

It was not uncommon for Alba to seek rest in the quiet places of the castle. The forgotten nooks and crannies with their oddly shaped corners and sagging wallpaper were just as peaceful as an ocean breeze, or a spring meadow. In the Owlery, she’d found a way to get under the floorboards, safe from droppings, and listen to the birds as they sang in their sleep. Occasionally she would slip down to where first years washed up on the shores of Hogwarts in their boats made from hopes and dreams. She liked to think about being a Healer there.

 

These unused spaces offered her a place to contemplate, deliberate, and occasionally cry. Alba decided there, tucked away in her little hole, she needed all three.

 

But before the waterworks started: Contemplation.

 

There was no getting out of the Tournament, that much was certain. If they wouldn’t let a fourteen-year old icon off the hook, she was certainly in it for the long haul, willing or not. That meant the question ‘What next?’ was rather simple.

 

Survive the Triwizard Tournament.

 

She already had it broken down into steps in preparation for keeping James alive for months. An entire outline devoted to avoiding panic. Though now that it pertained to what she would need to do, it was a much more terrifying prospect. A groan escaped through her lips into the darkness, and she pressed forward past contemplation. There would be plenty of time for that after the meeting with McGonagall.

 

There was one thing she needed to decide on before she spoke with the headmistress. Any sign of weakness, and the woman would swoop down on her. She had seen it happen to classmates dozens of times.

 

Fact: James had illegally put her name in the Goblet of Fire, effectively forging a magically binding contract, and endangered her life- not to mention sabotaging her exams- in order to keep up appearances at school while obeying his father.

 

Fact: James had chosen Alba’s name because he did not think she had the slightest chance of being chosen.

 

Question: Was James her friend?

 

Cue tears.

 

 

After a few moments, when everything was dry, Alba found the strength to pull her scattered brain to pieces and come out of hiding.

 

The door swung open without a squeak, and she extracted her metal contraptions and cramped limbs from the small place without grace. Alba took a moment to brush cobwebs from her robes, but from the sound of thing outside, most of the student body had already dissipated. It took her only a matter of moments to arrive at the stone gargoyle statues that marked the entrance to the headmistress’s office.

 

Alba remembered the first time she’d been told to present herself at the headmistress’s office, and at Nurse Wainscott’s instruction. Ellington McArthy had put a jelly-legs jinx on her to see exactly how useful her crutches were in front of a roaring Slytherin crowd. The memory still made her smile. As a second year, she hadn’t learned the counterspell to fix her limbs, but the crutches worked much better than Ellington had expected. Alba jinxed him from head to toe, quite literally, as he ran away, the grass growing from his scalp lengthening rapidly.

 

The meeting hadn’t gone at all like Alba had expected. For one, Ellington was there, and McGonagall had been rather forthcoming with her opinion on his ‘apparent lack of manner and sense’. The headmistress also confided that she didn’t expect him to be the last of her tormentors, and that as long as any action against bullies was strictly reciprocal and not actually detrimental to their health, she felt as though they could ‘nip it in the bud’ if she continued to handle situations herself.

 

It worked. After decimating two other rather vicious pranksters, it became apparent to her would be enemies that it was simply not worth it.

 

“She’s expecting you,” a gargoyle said innocently enough from before her. Alba shook herself back to the present and waited for the staircase to raise upwards, creating a path to the office above. Nothing happened.

 

Bewildered, she looked at the statue to her left.

 

“Well get on, love. No reason to climb when you can ride, darling.”

 

Of course. Even the artwork was capable of pity, she thought.

 

Too tired to argue, she only let out a sigh and stepped into the stairwell. As soon as she was settled, the grating sound of stone against stone began as the stairs wove their way upwards towards the headmistress’s office.

 

Two knocks and a rather clipped ‘enter’ later, she was sitting in the rather uncomfortable chair in front of Professor McGonagall, trying to ignore the looks the portraits were giving her.

 

Alba’s breath came in little short gasps, and the warmth of a blush touched her cheeks. All the tears were gone, but still the woman in front of her was imposing. Iron will incarnate, with the wisdom of decades, and here she was. A girl, on the brink of adulthood, sure, but just a girl all the same. And scared at that, just as she had been all those years before.

 

“Have a biscuit,” McGonagall said rather quietly.

 

Alba could only blink. “No thank you-”

 

The headmistress’s expression changed with amazing speed, her eyes turning to daggers and her mouth becoming just the slightest bit thinner.

 

“Or, maybe just one,” Alba mumbled instead.

 

“Do you have any idea why invited you here, Ms. Williamson?”

 

“I assumed you requested it of all the Hogwarts champions,” she replied honestly. The silence in response made her second guess.

 

“I have seen my share of students be chosen for this tournament, and it is generally very predictable.” Alba started chewing on the inside of her lip. Her eyes darted about the room, reluctant to stare McGonagall down as the truth unfolded. “A piece of parchment is expelled, a name is read, a student comes forward.”

 

After examining all of the shelves, filled with their many colored tomes and eccentric bottles and baubles, Alba’s eyes had no where left to bounce but to the aging professor before her.

 

“There has been only one other time in my recollection where a name has had to be called twice. Are you aware of that instance, Ms. Williamson?”

 

“Yes, ma’am,” she replied quietly, now unable to look away from the very thing she had attempted to avoid. It was coming, the moment she had deliberated over in that little cupboard of a hide-away, and still she was unsure of her reply.

 

“Then this should be a very simple and plain matter. Did you put your name into the Goblet of Fire?”

 

Alba had never before enjoyed the expression ‘time stood still’. Any kind of talk about time slowing or speeding up was, in her opinion, simply melodramatic and cliche, but as her mind churned over how to respond to that question, seconds stretched, the ticking of a grandfather clock behind her languid, not the crisp, consistent reminder it had been previously.

 

Too much was running through her head, too many memories.

 

Finally, her mind settled on one:

 

“...no more turning me into the authorities...”

“I won’t if you won’t.”

 

Fact: Even if James wasn’t a good friend, she was.

 

“Yes ma’am. I put my name into the Goblet of Fire. ”

 

McGonagall dipped her head enough for her hawk eyes to bore down at Alba from above her spectacles, but Alba didn’t flinch.

 

Unexpectedly, the headmistress said, “Very well. It would have displeased me greatly to have to expel someone." Alba tried to suppress her shock at the woman continued, "Now, I expect you already have a Coach and Champion in mind?”

 

Alba’s brain stalled, thoughts tripping and falling on one another as the words caught in her throat. There was an awkward silence. McGonagall’s eyebrows rose until they disappeared beneath the brim of her deep purple hat.

 

“Well, not... precisely,” Alba finally managed to get out. “You see... Professor,” her cheeks heated again to a brilliant red as she muttered, “I never thought I’d ever get chosen... I didn’t give it any thought at all.”

 

The built up tension started to ease out of Alba as McGonagall’s eyes wrinkled into a soft smile. “You’re hardly the first, dear. Would you like me to make some suggestions?”

 

 

 

 

 

About thirty minutes later, Alba and Professor McGonagall had narrowed down her prospective Coaches to three candidates:

 

Professor Pimbly

Professor Longbottom and

Nurse Wainscott

 

“I’m just not sure about Professor Longbottom,” Alba admitted, taking another biscuit.

 

“I wouldn’t underestimate him. It was he who got Auror Potter through the second task at all,” she said with a laugh. “Potter told me once that if he hadn’t gotten the gillyweed, his plan was to stick his head under the water and shout at the merpeople to give him his firebolt back.” That had Alba giggling, holding up a hand to keep any crumbs from escaping. She was beginning to feel quite a bit better.

 

McGonagall continued, “Though if you don’t think he’s the one for you, that’s fine. You do have a point about Nurse Wainscott, of course. She is quite familiar with your conditions, and could very well prove to be an asset. Professor Pimbly is an exceptionally capable witch as well. At this point, you can’t really go wrong. Besides, it’s about time you head back up to bed.”

 

It surprised Alba a little, after so much talk of her Coach, she expected the same kind of in-detail discussion about her Companion.

 

“You wouldn’t happen to have any ideas on who my Companion should be?” she asked as she stood, arranging the spindly crutches on either side.

 

McGonagall frowned up at her before replying, “I had thought surely you would employ the young Mr. Potter? Are you and he not rather close?”

 

“Right, of course... it’s just... well. I guess we’ll see,” Alba muttered quietly, retreating towards the door she came from. “Thank you, Professor McGonagall.”

 

“You’re very welcome. And Alba,” she paused with one hand on the door, three fingers stretched uncomfortably straight as she prepared to push her way past, unable to look at the headmistress, sure that some kind of condolence was about to be offered. "I'm so very proud of you. It takes a lot of courage to enter this competition. I cannot wait to see the look of triumph on your face when you lift the cup over your head to the sound of a cheering crowd, victor of the Triwizard Tournament."

 

Once again, her eyes were leaking. Alba remembered the warmth in Madame Maxime’s voice as she embraced her Champion, and the clipped congratulations she assumed Voda offered to his.

 

She preferred this simple strength and confidence. A good, logical discussion with heartfelt encouragement. She needed it. Even if it was false hope, unearned faith, it was nice to know that at least one person thought she could win. And if she could have only one fan, Professor McGonagall was certainly a very good choice.

 

The thought would help keep her head held high in the upcoming weeks.

 

“Thank you, Professor,” she practically whispered before escaping to the solitary staircase beyond.

 

Chapter 7: Blithe Smile, Lithe Limb by Chelts-rhj

Alba's mind had been rather calmed by the talk with McGonogall, but her body was still running on fumes. Too much had happened, and most of them had involved stairs. As she stood at the bottom of the Ravenclaw tower, she seriously considered the downsides of being in her house, not that she would ever trade. 

 

Alba took a deep breath and leaned into one crutch as she started the ascent. 

 

The stairs were certainly at the top of her list of Cons. Completely unnecessary in her opinion. Sure, the view was great, and the location made setting up a telescope out of the window quite nice, but over all not worth it. Towers weren't even that safe, structurally speaking. Though she could see the aesthetic appeal of the skillfully cut and placed stone rising majestically above. Still completely unnecessary.  

 

That wasn't the only thing though. Alba debated about it for a moment before deciding that the Bronze Eagle would have to be number two on her list of cons. It was entertaining sometimes, a real teaching experience, sure, but what about when you really had to pee? Did Rowena just never think about emergencies? That little knocker was a stubborn piece of worn metal, ridiculously dedicated to the point of obsessiveness. It was difficult to go all the way downstairs to find a bathroom when you needed one twenty minutes prior, and the bird had rather creepy laugh. 

 

"Each house has one of these, but which is yours, safe to keep?" the obnoxious little thing posed to her when she finally crossed the last step. 

As there was no one around, she had no compunctions about solving it aloud. "Safe to keep? Well that'd be a secret... each house has one... uh... Gryffindor is password, Slytherin is password I suppose, Hufflepuff is location... and ours is..." 

 

The blood drained from her face as the words leaked out of her mouth, "House Meeting,". 

 

Ravenclaw House had no password. The location wasn't secret. A few times during her stint at the school she had entered the common room to see a rather smug looking Gryffindor or Slytherin sitting in a blue armchair, entirely too pleased with themselves. "I got it right!" they'd eventually say to someone or other, to which we normally replied, "So do our first years." They couldn't go upstairs, much like boys couldn't go into the girl's dormitories, but they didn't know the big secret. 

 

House Meetings. Academia was a sport within itself in Ravenclaw Tower, one that others took quite a bit more seriously than others. At the beginning of the year, before all the first years were tucked safely into bed, the Head of House and Prefects gathered together to educate them on the Rules of House Meetings, and introduce them to The Mediator, the procedure for Nominations, and all the other internal traditions of Ravenclaw.

 

Sure enough, as the door swung in towards the Common Room, she heard a low rumble of voices waiting for her. She couldn't bring herself to take another step.

 

"There you are," she heard a soft whisper. 

 

Lavern Morrison, sixth year Prefect, was waiting for her in the entryway. "I'm really sorry about this," the girl offered, chewing on her lip. "I tried to get them to wait, but when the Mediator heard so many people arguing, well... you know how he gets." 


The Mediator was definitely number three on her list. Unaccomodating, nosey, and intrusive, The Mediator served as Ravenclaw's impartial judge. Just as the Bronze Eagle was obsessive about riddles, The Mediator was prejudiced against opinions. 


Alba knew that people usually thought the defining trait in a Ravenclaw boiled down to being 'smart'. However, after years of thinking on it, Alba had decided that it was more like everyone in Ravenclaw wanted to know. Ravenclaw musicians wanted to know how the instrument was made, the mechanics behind how it worked, the spells used to enhance it, the classic technique used to handle it, and then... then they wanted to play it. Others wanted to know everything about Quidditch, or Potions, or Healing. And some just wanted to know the truth about everything. The Mediator took that to an entirely new concept.

 

Lavern pressed her hand gently against Alba's shoulder, insisting as gently as she could that they enter the circle of gathered students. 

 

The first thing Alba noticed was that everyone was present. The typical House Meeting was only held with students of the same year. It gave everyone a chance to discuss who had gained and lost house points, who was falling behind in classwork, and the safety to voice any concerns or problems you have with your peers. It worked best if only those in your year, those who knew you best, were present. It was efficient. 

 

No one seemed to notice Lavern slink off to one side as Alba walked into the center of the circular common room. All eyes were on her. First years gathered in their little cliques peered out in confusion from the front, a full head an shoulders shorter than most of the gathered student body. 


Her eyes darted about from face to face, searching for the few people she knew she could count on during this. Maude was peeking out from behind two taller boys in Fifth Year. Ben was sitting a chair over by the fireplace. A flutter of concern washed over her irritation as she assessed his condition. He was slumped forward in his chair, hands knotted in his curly hair. His clothes seemed unusually disheveled. She realized for the first time that she had not seen him at dinner. Was he alright?

 

"Order." A command rang out from The Mediator, silencing the room. Alba was relieved when most of the eyes in the room darted from her to the portrait hanging above the fireplace. The ornate frame around The Mediator glinted rather nicely, the contours thrown into sharp contrast by the fire beneath it. He was a rather gaunt man, his cheeks hallow, the bones poking out beneath sagging skin. When he spoke, it was with gusto, and nearly impossible to ignore. The only two people looking in her direction were Maude and Ben.

 

"As our first item of business, I believe that Congratulations are in order for the entire Ravenclaw House on producing a Champion for the Triwizard Tournament." 

 

A few people raised their hands to clap, but Alba's heart fell a little at how pitiful the sound was. 

 

The thin lines of his face curved downward into a rather wrinkly frown. "It concerns me greatly that there is discontent on this event. With the cooperation of the House Prefects, I have elected to convene this House Meeting in order to educate all the noble members of the Ravenclaw House..."

 

The blood in Alba's body pumped a little faster, and little beads of sweat gathered on the insides of her palms. It was her worst nightmare come true.


"...on it's Champion in this Tournament. As per the usual, we as a House, are to be precise, logical, and reasonable in our discussions." His eyes narrowed as he peered out at the students gathered before him. "Opinions are to be kept to yourself." The Mediator had a bad habit of getting quieter when he really wanted you to be listening. Several students were leaning forward to catch his last words. " Facts are educating... Opinions are gossip. I do not gossip." He spit the last word, and Alba imagined that were he actually flesh and blood, he might've spit on Ben. 

 

Her thoughts abruptly shifted when all the eyes in the room darted back to her. A cramp started in her calf, and slowly worked it's way into her thigh. It had been a long day. She would be greatful for increase in Pain Philter tomorrow morning. 

 

Gregor Melvin, the other Prefect, stood and waited to be acknowledged by The Mediator. There had been a lot more House Meetings since Gregor had been made Prefect. He seemed to enjoy the formality of it all, and the recognition that could be attained. 

 

"I believe that the Champion, Alba Williamson, should be allowed first to give any and all information that she believes may be relevant to the discontent of her being named Champion."

 

It had always rather amazed her how Melvin managed to phrase things so that they satifisfied The Mediator. She was awful at if herself. The last time she'd tried to speak with him, not during a Meeting, just speak to him, he told her that she was 'simply too impatient to accomplish much of anything'. And promptly left. Though how he could hate opinions so much and profer his own so freely had her counting the letters in 'hipocrasy' for future word-search reference.


"Very well," he raised a hand, gesturing towards where Alba stood, and she lost count. "If you please, Ms. Williamson..." 

 

She took a deep breath, heart stuttering, shoving words up her throat. "Uh... As some of you might be aware, I was born with a disease called Cerebral Palsy." She waited for some form of acknowledgement. After a few moments of silence, Alba continued. "It's a neurological condition of the brain primarily affecting muscle development and growth." She paused long enough to lick her lips. The top of her mouth was dreadfully dry. "This happens en-utero, making it difficult to prevent by both muggle and magical means." Thankfully The Mediator found her definition and explanation to be devoid of opinion, because he gave no protest. No one else gathered seemed ready to interrupt either. "Each case is unique to the individual. In my case, the disease has decreased range of motion, strength, flexibility, and functionality of several limbs-"


"Be precise, Ms. Williamson. 'Several' is a generalization." The Mediator finally interrupted. 

 

She stalled, unable to find a good place to rest her eyes. Maude was still peeking from behind someone, though her head was tilted to the side, her eyes focused. Ben was still staring at her, hands clasped to his head. "Uh... well..," unsure of what else to do, she straightened to her unimpressive full height, leaning less on her crutches, though a twinge of pain shot up one leg. She raised her right arm, spreading her fingers out as far as she could. Predictably, the pinky and ring finger remained curled. "Two of the fingers on my right hand do not function properly. The integrity of my entire left limb is compromised by growth defects in the muscles, tendons, and ligaments. I lack strength and dexterity because of it." 

 

She took a deep breath, her face turning red as she realized that in her current state, she would have to ask someone for their chair in order to continue with the presentation. Though Alba tried to think of it like explaining things to children, it felt much more intimate. She would have to do all the explaining correctly in order to save herself a lecture from The Mediator. It took a few moments to gather the right words.

 

"Mediator, I require a chair in order to proceed-" there was a loud scrapping noise as Ben stood while pulling out the chair from beneath him, "with... my... presentation." People fidgeted in the silence as Ben walked to where she stood in the center of the room. 

 

His usual jovial face was grim, the playful mouth set into a hard line. He didn't linger, simply sat it quickly beside her and returned. Alba was rather grateful for the professional manner. It made the whole thing more... clinical. Like reading a case report out loud. Though as The Mediator disliked jargon, she would have to explain it the long way round.

 

Alba set her crutches against the back of the chair and sat, immediately bending forward to remove her shoes and knee high socks. 

 

"As you can see, I require the use of ankle braces, tucked inside supportive shoes, to ensure that the muscles and tendons in both legs remain stretched enough to enable a sustainable gait. When left unchecked..." Alba grunted a little as she pulled on the straps keeping the brace on her right foot tight. Finally they gave, and she pulled her foot out of them. There was another sock beneath, for comfort, but the effect was obvious. "...the muscle reverts back to it's original inclination."  Even as she pulled her foot from the brace, the muscle contracted, shortening her Achilles tendon. As per the norm, her foot was pulled into that ballerina like position. Not exactly the most efficient for walking. 

 

Movement to the left caught her attention, and Alba straightened in the chair, letting her bare toes touch the floor beneath. 


Chelsea Hammond was standing, waiting to be acknowledge with her frizzy hair piled on top of her head. There was a pencil hiding in it.


Alba looked to The Mediator, waiting for some kind of signal. 


"Are you willing to recieve an inquiry, Ms. Williamson?" he asked.


"Yes... sir," she replied rather awkwardly.


Alba was relieved to hear the genuine curiosity in her voice as she posed the question, "Is that why you need arm sticks?" 


Alba laughed a little. "Yes. Braces help my feet, but hinder the range of motion for my ankles, making it harder to maintain balance. The arm crutches add two additional points of stability." 


Another person was standing now, Jennings, a rather private boy from her year. Alba looked to the Mediator again. 


"Do you have any other information you wish to divulge before answering more inquiries?"


Alba thought for a moment. Nothing else seemed rather pertinent.


"No sir?" 


He turned towards the boy. "Your inquiry?" 


"Last year, Alba didn't need to use her crutches anymore. Why did she start wearing them again? Is there a remission?" Alba found it odd that he spoke the question to the wall where The Mediator hung, and not to the center of the room.


"Do you have relevant information to divulge, Ms. Williamson?" 


"Yes sir." 


One oil-based eyebrow lifted comically as she let the silence stretch. "Then by all means, continue," he eventually said


"Oh, well..." she cleared her throat, but the words stuck to the sticky top of her mouth. Finally, the information flowed, detailing the specifics of her regimen. Maude nodded and spoke up a little, and a few of the girls in her year seemed to be doing much of the same. Ben was standing by the fireplace with his arms crossed, just watching her. 


There was a familiar detachment to her words. It was rather like being in St. Mungo's. Not nearly as nerve racking as she thought. As she finished explaining about the potions, someone stood. 


Alba frowned as she turned to nod at The Mediator. He returned the sentiment. 


"Yes?" she asked the younger girl across from her. 


"Hello..." the girl squeaked, "I'm Evelyn. Evelyn Maritime." Alba was rather surprised when she came forward to shake her hand, coaxing a smile to Alba's features. "Are you going to have to stop taking the positions now that you're a Triwizard Champion? I mean, some might think that a Strengthening Solution or Pain Philter is an unfair advantage."

 

Alba stared blankly back as the room waited for her response. She had no idea. Wasn't Evelyn Maritime getting just a little bit ahead of herself? 

 

"That's ridiculous," Ben said loudly from his stoic position. 


"OPINION!" The Mediator roared, frieghtening Evelyn into scurrying back to the crowd. 


It was going to be a long night.  

 

 


 

Finally, Alba cracked her eyes open to the early morning rays of sun peeking through her bedroom curtains. She waited with bated breath for the quiet, whispered words of her dorm mates. When none came she realized that it was Saturday, and while she was a freak of nature who didn't particularly like to sleep in, she and Maude were the only ones of that sentiment. 


Sure enough when she pulled the curtains back it was to find Maude's bed nice and tidy, all made up, while the girl herself had probably been at breakfast for a good half hour. 


Alba winced as her toes touched the floor. It was cold, the biting kind, and she rubbed the stiffness out of her calves with one hand while groping for her wand with the other. "So, without the Philter, you hurt all the time?" she remembered a squeaky first year asking. Alba shook her head, as though that could stop the memory of all those voices. Too many questions. Most of which she didn't like thinking about, much less talking about.


A few flicks of the wrist later, Alba had a mismatched pair of knee high socks and a nice, warm outfit to change into. She was looking forward to a good stretch and conversation with Nurse Wainscott. Hopefully she'd beat Ben and James awake. It would be nice to enjoy a quiet, relaxing breakfast in solitude. 


She'd have to send her parents a letter, explaining about the Tournament. Well, lying about the Tournament. It's not as though she could write "Sorry Mum, would've warned you, but I didn't put my name in,". She had to think of something plausible. A dare maybe? Though that seemed a bit juvenile. She'd been rather... vocal about her disapproval of James possible entry. 


Her stomach growled, and Alba frowned in the mirror as she pulled out her Strengthening Solution in it's red, curvy bottle. 


"When do you take it?" a boy had asked, eyes narrowed as though in suspicion. Maude had stood, been acknowledged, and defended. "Every morning. I'm in her dorm. As she said before, the Philter is administered by the Nurse, but the Solution she takes in the morning." 


It burned going down, a smoky, bitter flavor that warmed her belly and sent tongues of flame licking down her limbs. A few moments, and it was gone, the magic working into her muscles. 


Alba stared into the mirror, trying to escape the inevitable. Eventually her memory dragged Ben's voice from the depths of her mind. His eyes unusually distant, and his mouth flat without humor, "Is James your Companion, then?"


She didn't have an answer then, and didn't have an answer now. 


Deep breaths, she thought, finding her breath was coming in sharp gasps as she was half way down the spiral stair case. Deep breaths...

 

It did help that by the end of the House Meeting her classmates at least knew the facts about her condition. Now they would be able to dispel any propaganda or ignorance. That would be helpful. However, she felt as though the Gryffindors might very well like to see her fail, as they felt she 'took' the chance from Potter. Hufflepuff was likely to root for the underdog, while Slytherin was always a toss up on whether or not they supported someone like-


"Alba." 


The voice startled her. She'd been on autopilot, passing through corridors to the Great Hall without much thought, but as she came upon the Grand Staircase, James was leaning on the banister. 


He looked awful, if she was being unbiased. There were deep circles under his eyes, and his clothes were horribly wrinkled, as though he'd slept in them. His hair was always like that though. Alba's mouth turned down of it's own accord, and she allowed the expression to stay. "James," she said curtly, continuing on her way down the stairs. 


The rubber end of her crutch made a soft squeak on the stair. "Why didn't you tell me you put your name in?" 

 

The question had her eyebrows pulling down, her head whipping back before she could stop it. "Excuse me?" she spat back, making a mental note to set an interrogatory limit on her daily interactions from then on.

 

"Why didn't you tell me?" he said calmly. 

 

Alba's mind was racing, examining and re-examining all the information. The equation simply didn't add up. "Do you really think I'm that stupid, James?" she glanced around to be sure they were alone before whispering, "I know you put my name in James. I covered for you!" She let the disgust in her voice show through. 

 

Now it was James's turn to look confused. "I didn't put your name in," he said quickly. 

 

Alba narrowed her eyes at him. "You were being all weird about the whole thing! 'I'll take care of it' " she imitated in a ridiculous low voice. "And then insisting I come in the circle-" 

 

She shut up as he reached forward and took her chin in his hands, turning her face to look directly at him as a parent would a misbehaving child. "Alba Williamson, I'm telling you right now that I did not put your name into the Goblet of Fire." 

 

She jerked away from him as one drop of doubt spilled into her mind. It wasn't like James to lie to her, and the fact that he was doing it with a straight face made her insides burn more than the Strengthening Solution did. 

 

"I don't want to hear it, James," she started back down the stairs, trying to hurry while being careful. "Just leave me alone." 

 

Of course, he wouldn't let it rest, and it was easy to follow behind. "I don't want you to be in this competition, Alba."

 

"That's why you chose my name, right? Least likely to be spit back out. Too bad that backfired," she muttered. 

 

"Will you stop it with that! The paper everyone saw me put into the Goblet? It was blank! Nothing was on it. I didn't put your name in!" He was really sounding exasperated now, and she pulled one arm crutch away from him as he tried to grab hold of it. 

 

"I don't care what you say, James, it doesn't make a difference."

 

"Well, whether or not my friends think I'm a liar makes a difference to me, alright?" he was speeding up to come along beside her.

 

Alba stopped in her tracks, letting him block her way. Her stomach was in knots, churning over the potion in her belly. 

 

James had her by the shoulders, arms stretched out to their full length as he bent down to her level. "I, James Sirius Potter, do solemly swear that I-" 

 

"Can it, Potter. I don't want to hear it. I have just one question for you." There went her nervous system again, kicking the adrenaline into high gear.

 

James frowned again, his mouth opening and shutting as he debated over the correct response. "What's the question?" 

 

"Do you have any hope at all that I have a chance to survive this competition?" Though she tried her best, Alba's voice wavered a little on the delivery. 

 

Her heart sunk as James shook his head. 

 

"I don't think you can just survive," he said quietly, "I expect you to at least get second. That Pierre what's his name couldn't handle half the stuff you can. And bronze isn't really your colour," he teased, pulling at the blue and bronze stripped scarf at her neck.

 

One rogue tear was threatening to slip down her cheek. Alba tried to blink it away, but instead James took one hand off her shoulder and used it to wipe the annoying moisture away. 

 

"I don't believe you," she sniffed, "but I need you to be my Companion. You got me into this mess-"

 

"Incorrect." James inserted.

 

"-and now I need you to get me out of it." she finished. 

 

Chapter 8: She's who's Winsome by Chelts-rhj


The dining hall was blissfully bare.  The few occupants in black seated at the long house tables were too groggy or introverted to look up as James and Alba entered, much more interested in yawning into their cereal bowls. The largest group, the Beauxbatons, looked like they decided to come and eat before brushing their hair. They shuffled up and down the house tables, looking for the strange dishes dispersed amongst the glittering selection that reminded them of home. 

Alba shrunk her crutches and stowed them away in her bag before taking a seat next to James at the end of the long Ravenclaw table. The morning light filtered in a dingy grey through thick clouds; candles were floating alongside to banish the shadows. As Maude was nowhere to be seen and the entire Gryffindor table was empty, the two friends were in relative privacy.

Alba thought that things would be easier knowing James would be her Companion, but her fingers tapped against the table as they sat, and her breath still caught in her throat. There were questions bouncing around inside her head, most of them involving his honesty. It made it difficult to focus. Her eggs and toast were blurry, buried in question marks.

There was too much evidence pointing in his direction to change her way of thinking, but she certainly hadn't been expecting a plea of innocence. 

Reexamining the evidence wasn't precisely objective either. The moments after her name was called had definitely become victim to emotional charge. 

The orange juice was cold, rushing down her throat and waking her up a little more. It didn't matter what he said anyway. Friends made mistakes, and now that the Cup had chosen her, he seemed on board with the whole "Survive the Triwizard Tournament" plan. Which was all that really mattered at the moment.

Apparently he felt differently. 

While they ate, James didn't bring up conversation. He grumbled a little sometimes under his breath, and Alba was struck again by how off he seemed. He ate one plate of food in silence, then got seconds. Alba was picking at the crumbs on her plate as he finished, the silence stretching on, even as the stubble on his face lengthened with the dreary day.

Perhaps the Tournament wasn't the only thing on her best friend's mind.

Alba cleared her throat. "So, is Chandra still all pissed at me?" It was the only thing that popped into her mind. She'd noticed the girl's stiletto still stuck to the stair on her way down, thin clasp broken in her attempt to rip it off.

James didn't look up at her, just trailed his fork through the leftover syrup spilled on his plate. "Not sure, really..." he finally grumbled. 

A furrow formed in the middle of her head as Alba frowned at him. James missed it, eyes still focused on his syrup painting. She pried without remorse. "Is she mad at you?" 

James grumbled a bit.

"Oh..." his prolonged absence from the Gryffindor common room, and more importantly, Chandra's leash, had bells going off. "Are you two...alright?" 

"No, not really. Look, I don't-"

Eager to hear about the aftermath of her encounter with Chandra, Alba interrupted quickly, "Too bad. Spill. You look awful." James gave a cry of protest, finally throwing her a hurt look.  Alba simply raised an eyebrow, challenging him to protest. His concession was in the frown that quickly followed. 

"What happened?" she asked greedily.

She was ready for a knock-down, drag-out fight story, but the sigh heaved from deep within his chest was too heavy to give her any satisfaction. 

"I think we broke up." 

Not again, she thought. The words didn't sit well with her though, and she searched for something comforting to say. Nothing too inspiring came to mind, so she took one of her messed up hands, and patted his shoulder. "It can't have been too bad if you only 'think' you broke up. Remember when Wilhelmina and Morrissey broke up? He ended up running around with his fingernails on fire by the time it was all said and done. And they ended up back together like, a week later."

James smiled at the memory, but it didn't touch anything but corners of his lips. 

Chandra's absence was marked in the dimness of his features, the color of his lips. The longest they'd been apart was 48 hours, and to speak of it was forbidden. 

That’s why Alba couldn’t bring herself to ever wish them apart. He was broken without her.

Alba was a little thankful when Albus joined them, sleep still caked in the crevices of his eyes, though he'd at least managed to put on a clean pair of robes. He took the seat across from James, sitting down sideways with his feet propped up next to him.

"Hey man," he offered gingerly. "How you holding up?" 

His tone clearly suggested that, as the younger brother, he was fulfilling his duty to perform the post-break up check-up. The adult Weasley/Potter clan was a terrifyingly large family with overly-involved extended family, in Alba's opinion. The speed at which news traveled within their ranks should've been researched by ministry officials for liaison usage.

"Well," James offered with weak bravado, adding more to his syrup masterpiece, "all the pretty girls in my life are leaving. Chandra will have a new boyfriend soon, and now Alba is off seeking fame and riches and glory. I'm just a tag along, the footnote at the end of the page." 

Albus, always able to find the humor in everything, laughed generously, his nose wrinkling just like his mother. "And here you thought Dad and Mum were going to lay off the Tournament talk. Once they find out Alba is Champion, you'll be getting all kinds of owls with tips and warnings about 'keeping her safe'.” Almost as if he rehearsed it, Al looked up comically, placing a finger just under his chin as though pondering some difficult question. “I wonder if Aunt Hermione will make one of her 'preparedness pamphlets' for the two of you." 

He reached forward for a small triangle of toast before getting up and sauntering over to where a few of the groggy Beauxbatons were congregated, laughing the whole way.

"I have to go," Alba offered hastily towards James, her appetite vanished. "Sorry if I caused any trouble between you and-"

" 'S not your fault, Alba," he said, much too quietly for comfort.

She glanced up to wave, but found the expression on his face kept her attention. She'd been expecting something pitiful and sappy.

"If you didn't put your name in, and I didn't put your name in, then I will find out who did. And I will make sure they get what they deserve." With how intensely his eyes burned, Alba thought that his father must've been a very formidable enemy.

Not sure how to respond to his comment appropriately, Alba picked up her bag and headed to the Hospital Wing. She had a lot to do before the day was done. 


Nurse Wainscott was crying before the heavy door shut behind her with a soft click. 

"What were you thinking," the good woman sobbed as Alba hopped onto a bed and began undoing her shoe laces. "This... this is too dangerous, darling. I love you, you're a brilliant, bright, beautiful young-"

"-witch who had every right to enter the Triwizard Tournament. Now I need you to be with me in this, Nurse Wainscott. So you can be mad at me all you like, so long as you agree to be my Coach and help me get into tip-top shape for this. I have to beat boys, you know. Really... big-ish, foreign boys." 

More tears spilled out of Nurse Wainscott's eyes, but this time with giggling spilling from her lips, and for the first time Alba wondered if the woman's constitution was quite up to the challenge of the competition. There were going to be a lot more dangerous things than exams and stairs ahead of her.

She bustled over and wrapped Alba in a tight hug before answering. "I wouldn't have it any other way, dear."

She sniffed, wiped at her cheeks, and cleared her throat. "Well then, we'd better do a full assessment. We'll just do the pre-planned workout today, but I'll get a more specific regimen worked up that should get you a little more up to speed as far as base muscle strength..." Alba lost track of what she was saying after a while. All kinds of ideas were being thrown around the empty hospital room as Alba worked and pushed her muscles. 

No matter how likely she was to cry at the drop of a hat, Nurse Wainscott was probably the only person capable of helping Alba through the tasks safely. No one had been so attentive or involved in Alba's physical life than Nurse Wainscott. Nostalgia washed through her mind as Alba thought about everything she'd gone through with the older woman.

"I will contact the Potion Master at St. Mungo's and see if there isn't a better way to deliver your regimen that would increase efficiency for Task duration," the Nurse was saying from inside her office. She'd begun to pull out books, stacking them one on top of another in her chubby arms.

"Speaking of the potions," Alba called, a little worried about bringing the subject up, "you don't think there's anything in the rules that might keep me from taking them, do you?"

She heard a book drop from inside the office, and the sound of silence. Finally, the uncertain voice of Nurse Wainscott came drifting by with the dust. "I honestly don't know dear. I think there would be just as many reasons for it to be in the rules as there are reasons it wouldn't be, but I certainly hope they do allow it..."

Though Alba continued to watch her go around the wing, picking through all different shapes and sizes of bottles and jars, searching for one book or another, the woman wasn't talking aloud anymore. She was biting her lip, her eyes unfocused on whatever task was at hand. When not busy, her fingers found each other, wringing themselves over and over again in a most districating way. 

"What will we do if I can't take them?" Alba asked as she finished with her last few stretches. 

The continued silence was unnerving. Finally Nurse Wainscott came over, taking her gentle, wrinkled hands and probing the muscles, tendons, and ligaments in Alba's legs. Alba tried to hide her frown as her Coach came upon the knot from last night's cramp. It was a wasted effort. 

Nurse Wainscott knew Alba's body better than Alba did herself at times. Otherwise, she wouldn't have been the best Coach.

"I'll give you an inflammation reduction salve for that calf and thigh before you go. Come and see me before you go back up, and I'll tell you if we can up the dose or not." 

Alba didn't press for an answer as she went to get the medication. 

Her hands were experienced, steady, and skilled as they went to work administering the ointment. With a great sigh she finally said,  "As your Coach, I'll look into what rules exist currently in the Triwizard Tournament regarding potions of a more... enhancing nature. No matter what they decide though, well... We'll get through it dear... we'll just... get through it." But her voice wasn't light and caring like her touch, it was sombre and serious. 

Nurse Wainscott pulled Alba's knee high's back up with skillful precision as a sharp knock rang out from the door, her respect for all her patient's privacy another winning attribute.

Ben cracked the door and shoved his mop of dirty blonde hair through. His grin lightened Alba's spirits a little. It was good to see him in a better mood.

"Ben!" Nurse Wainscott called, gesturing him in. "Are you feeling any better?" 

"Yes, much, thank you ma'am," he dipped his head politely and sat on the cot she patted. He did seem much better than the previous night. The color was back in his cheeks, hair combed and clean, demeanor calm.

"What was wrong with you?" Alba asked, rather ungracefully. She disliked conjecture regarding her friends.

"Just needed a tonic, if you must know," Nurse Wainscott answered, disapproval permeating her tone. Being polite was something the good Nurse was rather insistent on.

Alba pursed her lips, more than willing to churn through the distraction. He did seem to be feeling unwell during the House Meeting, and skipped dinner. She wouldn't be surprised if he just gorged himself to discomfort at lunch or something. 

The weight of all her unanswered questions, in regards to both James and Ben, had her stomach in knots. 

"Do you have a plan yet?" She remembered Wilhelmina posing during the House Meeting. At the time her response had been to 'confirm her Coach and Companion'. Now that part was done, what was next?

"As I'll be popping up to see the Headmistress about those rules, do you want me to tell her that you've chosen your Triwizard Team dear?"

Alba's eyes darted to Ben of their own accord. He had stood from the cot, and was facing away from her. She watched him closely as she replied, "Yes please, thank you." 

She saw his chest rise as he took a massive breath, but she was distracted by the nurse, and missed the rest of his reaction.

"Wonderful. I believe the remaining judges will be in tonight. They'll need to be announcing the Teams and the date of the First Task." 

As Alba's stomach squirmed uncomfortably, she wondered if she shouldn't ask Nurse Wainscott for a tonic too. 

“They’re coming tonight?” Alba asked. 

“Of course dear, they’ll need to announce the date of the First Task so they can get the weighing and interviews over with.”

Alba groaned audibly, throwing herself back down against the soft sheet of the mattress beneath her. She'd done her research for James, and had all the judges memorized by heart. McGonogall, of course, she'd known for quite some time. Voda, and Maxime she'd already met, leaving only the Ministry judges to tantalize her imagination.

Strategically speaking, she needed at least one of them to favor her. McGonogall, as wonderful as she was, was too strict about rules to show her Champion any special treatment, a practice she apparently kept from Dumbledore’s time at Judge in the Tournament. However, the other Heads were not so noble. If she couldn’t have at least one judge like her even a little more than the others, it would make things even more difficult.

Alba sat up, throwing one leg and then the other off the edge. The Pain Philter was strongest right after taken, and she had to concentrate make sure that her feet were actually on the ground before trying to support her weight on them. She threw her bag over her shoulder, still thinking of the impending arrival of the Judges as she prepared to leave. 

She could almost see her notes on the two Ministry officials, neat script going on for lines and lines...

Leatrice Zhang- Head of Magical Games and Sports. Initially served as Mrs. Potter's replacement for the Harpies while on maternity leave, and found her stardom shortly after. She enjoyed several years playing professionally until an unfortunate injury demanded her retirement. Generally noted for firecracker temperament towards biased referees, her stay as Head of Magical Games and Sports was marked by several screaming matches, both on and off the pitch, though in Alba’s opinion, the woman was always in the right.

Alba had seen pictures of her in the quidditch books that cluttered the otherwise informative selection on common room tables. In youth, at least, Zhang had been pretty. Pale eyes with dark, straight hair, and an intense focus while playing. 

It would be interesting to see how age had taken it's toll on her body and disposition towards fair-play. 

The other judge, Quinn Hambledon, Head of International Magical Cooperation was a little less publicized. He seemed to be a rather non-descript man, working one administrative position after another until he eventually became the most seasoned individual for the job, as far as she could tell. The old Prophets were void of any scandals involving him, and she didn’t have any friends with connections as high as his in the Ministry besides James, who had never heard of him.

The enigma of his personality was an itch that she just couldn't reach. 

Her shoulder was shoved against the heavy door before she heard Ben calling, "Wait, Alba!"

"Oh," she offered, turning to look back at him, "Sorry, what?" The nurse was pouring a glass of something for him.

"Will you wait?" he asked, "It'll just be a second." 

Alba began to push the door open. "Why? You can just catch up." 

"I wait for you..." Ben retorted, as though the question was ridiculous.

Alba stopped in her tracks, watching as he downed the concoction with one toss of his head. 

She’d never really thought about it before, but yes. Ben did wait for her. He waited for her after dinner, and class, he waited for her at the bottom of the stairs, and at the top if she fell behind. 

The idea never occurred for her to wait for him as well. 

"There," he breathed, smacking his lips. "No time at all, see?" 

"I'll see you later, dear. Don't forget to stop by," Nurse Wainscott called, eyeing Alba from over the top of her glasses. “I will drag you out of bed by your night skirt and all the way back down here if you make me.” 

"Yes, ma'am," Alba said, trying to smile. 

Ben held the door open, waiting for Alba to pass under his arm before following her. 

"I'm headed to the owlery. Have you had breakfast?" she asked Ben. 

"Yes, I ate a bit before coming by. Do you want to be alone, or can I accompany you?" he said quite politely. 

The corridor floor was covered in a thick red carpet, muffeling the sound of her crutches even as it pulled at the ends of her toes. With all her potions fresh and strong, she didn't mind the extra challenge of dragging her feet through the thick fibers. A grin pulled at her cheeks as she recognized the comfortable numbness working it’s way through her tired limbs, much more manageable now that a few minutes had passed.

"Sure," she called back. Truth be told, spending time with Ben was always a little fun, and after how much serious business had happened, she needed a break. "Don't help me too much though, knight in shining armor,” she teased, and he rolled his eyes at her as she continued. “I've got a competition to train for, you know. Not sure if you've heard, but I'm a pretty serious contender." 

He laughed, shaking his head at her ridiculous attempt at sarcasm, "I never thought you were going to enter, Alba Williamson." 

"Neither did I, Benjamin Honeypucker" she replied, trying her hardest to keep the frustration out of her voice. It was bad enough James was out to put her conspirator in St. Mungo’s, she didn’t need Ben in on the manhunt as well. 


The owlery was chilly, wind sweeping through the open windows to push feathers across the dropping strewn floor. The sun itself was still hidden behind thick layers of clouds, not helping with the cold seeping in through the wooden panels and stone walls. The owls had started to settle after a night of hunting, and Alba searched the neat rows for one that looked a little more awake. Ben was searching for his baby, a Little owl with cream speckles running over its reddish brown feathers and large, amber colored eyes. She was cooing softly, high enough up that it was difficult for him to reach. 

With a great stretch he managed to brush her soft front feathers. She yawned greatly, first one eye opening to gaze blearily at him before the other followed. The good-natured bird hopped onto his offered hand, cooing softly as she jumped up his arm onto his shoulder. 

“Why not just use Velvet?” Ben asked. “It’s been a little while since she’s had any fun.” 

“Sure,” Alba said, taking the letter she’d written for her parents out of her bag. She trusted Velvet a little more than the old school owls anyway. “I just need you to give this to my Mum, please Velvet. Dad won’t understand half of it.”

Velvet held out her leg patiently as Alba slowly tied it on. It was difficult, the decreased sensitivity from her potions making it hard to tell where the twine was beneath her stiff fingers, but Velvet was patient. Eventually, the brief letter was attached securely.

Before setting off, the bird fluffed her feathers, nipped at Ben’s ear, and gave a nice low hoot.

“Be safe,” Ben told her as she flew away, the dim rays of morning light turning her feathers into a beautiful auburn blaze on the horizon. 

Thunk, thunk, thunk. The two friends were startled by the sound of footsteps. Unsure of whether she was ready for the onslaught of public opinion again, Alba pulled Ben deeper into the recesses of the shadowy haven where it would be more difficult to be seen. Not that there were any real places to hide in the circular construction, but they didn’t have to be right by the door either. 

Her heart sunk a little more as a conversation began drifting up with the footsteps. The cadence and tone was off, like an untuned instrument, but it wasn’t until the door opened loudly she realized that the two were speaking in a foreign language. 

It was the Durmstrang Champion, the boy whose name was called first, and the girl they’d seen get off the boat following behind. They seemed to be arguing about something, but Alba really had no idea. Sometimes other languages just sounded angry.

Alba tried not to stare, but she was too tempted to study her competition now that shock had worn off. In the trophy room she hadn’t really been able to think about anything useful, so she tried to take in as much as she could through side glances.

He was tall, at least six feet, and athletic, though thinner than the Roux boy from Beauxbatons. His hair was a dirty blonde, straight, and cut in a fashionable, uneven way that made it look much more disheveled than it actually was. Being friends with James, she knew what actual messiness looked like, and what he had was certainly manufactured. Alba frowned a bit at him as he spoke with the girl. 

Long shiny black hair hung down her back in a uniform braid that ended below her butt. Her face was hard, unattractive in its combativeness as she spit words back at the boy before her.

His cheeks were flushed as he answered, though he was quieter. The more she heard, the more Alba was rather certain they weren’t having an amicable conversation. 

Finally the two realized that they weren’t alone, and after the girl threw another comment at him, the boy turned towards where Ben and Alba stood. 

“Please excuse us,” he said in very good English, “you must think us so impolite.”

Ben, much more comfortable in these types of situations than Alba, offered a hand and stepped forward while introducing himself. “No problem, I’m Benjamin Honeypucker, though most people just call me Ben, and this is-”

“Alba Williamson,” the girl interrupted, her eyes traveling up and down as she inspected Alba, completely ignoring Ben. Her English was dripping with a thick accent. “I am Minodora Vesela, Companion.” She held her head high, voice thick with pride as she made the announcement. 

Alba was sorely tempted to roll her eyes and walk away, but Ben saved her. 

“Oh really? That’ll be fun. Who’s your Champion? I didn’t make it to the feast last night,” he said, looking back and forth between both of the Durmstrang students expectantly. 

“That would be me,” the boy said good naturedly, smiling at them both. He offered a hand to Alba now, having already shook with Ben. “Dimitri Ivanovic.” 

Not wanting to seem rude like Vesela, Alba let go of her arm crutch and stretched her weak right arm out to accept his hand. It was warm and coarse, covered in callouses. 

While he had a pretty enough exterior, he was apparently adept at work too. 

“Well, I’d introduce myself again, but I think everyone’s heard my name enough in the last twelve hours,” Alba said, attempting to bring some humor into the equation. 

“We would more like to hear about… that,” Vesela said, nodding towards the arm crutch attached to her proffered arm with an unkind sneer on her features. 

Alba frowned, ready to retort, but an explosion of incomprehensible words drowned her out. 

Ivanovic spewed and spitted at her, his nose wrinkled as he looked at her with what could only be described as disgust. 

Alba was surprised, and glanced at Ben. He too seemed taken aback by the entire exchange. 

Ivanovic lifted his hand quickly, pointing behind Vesela where the door stood ajar, the stairs beyond shrouded in shadow. 

With a venomous retort flying from her lips, Vesela turned on her heel and flew down the stairs, braid bouncing behind in her haste. 

The whole exchange took only a few moments, leaving Alba wide eyed in her amazement. As Ivanovic turned to face them again, he had a smile on his face. The change in his demeanor was so complete and sudden that it took them both off guard.

“My apologies, Williamson. She should know better than that,” he offered. His teeth weren’t as white as she expected them to be. 

“What did you say to her?” Alba asked curiously. She still hadn’t formed a real opinion on him yet, but so far he was at least amusing.

“Oh, the Russian? I told her that I could not abide her rudeness, and if she couldn’t learn to hold her tongue, there would be no place for her on my Triwizard Team after all.”

Alba smiled as Ben burst with laughter. “I think I like you Ivanovic,” she said. 

“Call me DImitri, please,” he responded. 



 

Chapter 9: She Wins Him by Chelts-rhj

As the sun finally broke through the grumpy clouds, Alba and Ben waved goodbye to Dimitri. She was thankful for the company as they left, the sound of the boy’s exchanged pleasantries still audible over the creak from the steps beneath her feet. She wasn’t very good with small talk. 


“Well he was unexpectedly enjoyable,” Ben said under his breath from behind her. The narrow staircase with its spiraling wooden stairs was too confined for him to walk properly beside her. The earthy stones beside her were set in rhythmic, predictable patterns that she’d become very familiar with over the duration of her stay in the castle.


“Yes, though that Vesela troll seems rather volatile.” she snorted. “I wonder why he even chose her, they didn’t seem to get a long.” 


Portraits and staircases flew by during their discussion of the Durmstrang duo. They were able to come up with several reasons why two people who didn’t like each other would go into competitions like this. They exhausted every possible avenue, until finally Ben changed the subject. 


“So, James is your Companion, huh?” he asked from her side. Alba supposed that the statement was originally posed as interrogatory, bus there was as underlying tone of finality suggesting there was no actual question. 


Alba didn’t turn to look at him. “Well, he was a rather obvious choice, so why make things complicated.” 


“Why not Maude?” he asked. 


Alba was grateful he didn’t use a pleading tone. Like most of her house, he simply wanted to know the information. 


Honestly, she hadn’t even considered the girl. “Well, she’s very nice and all, I just… I don’t know. She’s not very creative, I suppose. Very logical, like I am. I think that having people of a varying disposition and expertise is the key to making a good team.” 


“So… if I was of age, would you have considered me?” His voice was quiet, and Alba again refused to turn her head a fraction to the side to catch a glimpse of him. She had too much to think about, too much to do for this supposition. 


“You aren’t of age. So why does it matter? Speculation won’t do me any good right now. You’re sixteen. You aren’t allowed to help.” Her tone was a bit more snappish than she meant, but it had never affected him before, and apparently it wasn’t going to now.


“Humor me,” he offered, coming in front of her so that her visual field was nothing but the very visage she didn’t want to see. His eyes were steady as hers darted all around. 


“Probably not, Ben. James and I work well together, we’ve known each other for years, and I just-”


“Won’t let anyone else get that close.” 


Alba was struck by the statement just as if he’d backhanded her. Her eyes popping open, and her mouth hanging, her brain turning over, trying to find a valid response, like her father trying to start the car after a snowstorm. Static filled her brain where words should’ve been. She tried to dredge up something, some shred of evidence to the contrary, but he was right. 


A very sweaty and disheveled James came skidding into view around the corner, knocking into a suit of armor hard enough to send them both sprawling. As the suit clamored to reattach his head, James continued forward, stealing Ben’s attention and saving Alba from finding a response. The pictures in the hallway seemed to disapprove of his haste, shaking their powdered wigs and noses at the Head Boy badge bouncing on his black robes with every step. The suit of armor seemed perfectly fine, to his credit.


He got about halfway down the corridor before stooping over, hands on his knees as he panted for air. “Looked for you… on the map,” he forced out between great gasps. He reached forward and loosened the knot in his red and gold striped tie as he continued, “Need to tell you… McGonogall, you and me… the nurse,” he lifted one hand, pointing at her “Saw you with Ivanovic. I was worried.” His color was returning to normal again, and he stood up straight after another deep breath.


“He’s actually quite nice,” Ben spoke up from beside her. 


“Really? Well, I’ll be sure to remember that while trying to figure out the best way to mercilessly beat him,” James responded. “Come on Alba.”


“I’ll see you later?” she offered to Ben, watching him from over her shoulder as she took a few tentative steps towards James. He nodded, but it was a curt, short nod without the grin she had taken advantage of earlier in the day.


“Yeah, sure. I’ll probably be in the library.” He turned and left without a backward glance. 


Alba was too absorbed in her own problems to try and force conversation with James again. Her last attempt had been disastrous. A few of the portraits on the crowded walls called to her, wishing her luck or shouting out odd pieces of advice. When James did speak, it startled her.


“Alba, you’d tell me if you liked anyone, right?” 


She gulped rather audibly, and appreciated that he was a few steps ahead. She took a moment to look at him before she answered. Where the sunlight filtered in through the warped glass windows, there was an undertone of red that came his from mother shining through the inky black. Most people thought he was a carbon copy of his father, but his mother was just too stubborn not to get a part of him. Alba knew that the inside of his right shoe wore down faster because of a broom accident he’d had a child that damaged a growth plate in his knee. If you paid attention, when he wore shorts you could see the slight curvature that resulted… and she 'liked' every bit of it.


With a deep breath, she forced herself to remember what it looked like when he smiled at Chandra, when he braided her hair, or asked for the best remedy for a head cold when she got the sniffles. She thought of the dark circles under his eyes every time they broke up.  


“Yeah, I suppose I would,” she said, hoping the silence hadn’t given her away, and shoving her own feelings aside. 


“So you aren’t into Honeypucker, are you? Because you’d have said something by now…” he trailed off, as though unsure of himself. Alba couldn’t help but laugh, any worries of him suspecting her vanishing.


“No, I don’t like Benjamin like that,” she said, almost to herself. “He’s great, he really is. I mean, he understands me, he thinks like me a lot. We have fun together-”


“But you know it’s more than that for him?” James interrupted, finally turning back to look at her. The accusation his tone confused her, as though he wanted the situation to be combative. 


The stone gargoyles standing guard at McGonogall’s office were just out of earshot, the important destination almost upon them. She saw one of the statues heads turn towards them, clicking a talon impatiently.  


She lowered her voice to try and diffuse the ridiculous situation, “Of course. He’s asked me out dozens of times. He’s not exactly shy.” 


James frowned. “Does he bother you?”


“No, not really. If I didn’t like him I wouldn’t hang out with him,” she reasoned. Nodding towards the entrance to the office. 


“So you do like him then?” 


Patience was a virtue Alba had in short supply. “Merlin’s arse, why are you interrogating me about this? Do you want me to be in love or something James? I’m sorry to disappoint, but I have a few more important things on my mind right now!” It all came out in a hiss as he attempted anger while whispering, a hand pointing unabashedly to where the gargoyles stood waiting.”Now are you done playing matchmaker?”



“Whatever,” James grumbled, pressing onward, as though it were his idea in the first place. “Wronski feint,” he muttered to no gargoyle in particular. They both jumped aside, but once again the staircase didn’t rise. 


Alba pushed past him, stepping under the giant archway to the top of the stairs, but James hesitated. “The castle insists that I ride,” she explained, nodding at a place beside her. 


James stepped forward without comment, and within no time they found themselves before the intimidating dark stained wood door that allowed the Heads of Hogwards privacy. The muted sound of voices filtered past the solid barrier, though it wasn’t until the door pushed open that they realized how many people were waiting for them. 


Stand tall, she thought, eyeing the unfamiliar faces around her. Just stand tall, it’ll be alright...


In addition to McGonagall, Nurse Wainscott, James, and Alba, both the other school heads were present, Voda leaning against a bookcase to the right with his arms folded over his chest, Madame Maxime visible from behind where McGonagall sat, her large girth all but blocking out the enormous window behind her.The light filtering through put her features in stark contrast, so that Alba couldn’t tell her expression. Another woman was sitting in the straight back chair before them, facing the desk, with an older man to the left.


The woman, Alba recognized. Leatrice Zhang turned and offered her a smile. Good sign. 


Time had treated the woman well. The lines creeping out from the edges of her dark eyes only served to soften her expressions. Red, square cut glasses added a nice contrast to her round face, pink lips turned into a smile. Her dark black hair was piled on top of her head, held in place by a rather large ornate butterfly clip, enchanted to flap its wings when she turned her head, as though wind were disturbing its rest.


“Alba, James,” McGonogall was saying as she stood, waving her wand so that two more chairs were placed between the adults before her, “please take a seat.” 


Nurse Wainscott still hadn’t looked away from the fireplace before her.She had expected a warm smile, a nod, a gesture, a pat on the shoulder, anything. The lack of encouragement had anxiety rising in her throat, burning on the way up as though she had suddenly acquired a particularly bad case of heartburn.


Alba stole a few furtive glances to the old man beside her as she sat, the one she assumed must be Quinn Hambledon, the last judge. He seemed to be pointedly ignoring her. Not a good sign. She was only able to register greying hair and sagging skin before McGonagall began speaking, gesturing to each of them in turn as she called out a name. 


“Leatrice Zhang, Quinn Hambledon, this is our Champion, Alba Williamson, and her Companion, James Potter.” 


Alba rolled her eyes as the adults rustled in their respective positions at the mention of his name, as though the wind of interest had blown them from their boredom and into the awesome presence of “The Chosen One’s” first-born. 


McGonagall continued as though nothing had happened, “Normally you would’ve been introduced to the other two Judges formally tonight, with the other Triwizard Teams, however, it was decided to break tradition to sort out some… complications.” 


The pit of her stomach dropped. She hadn’t realized the Teams would be announced so quickly, although with only Beauxbatons requiring the transportation of an outside Professor, perhaps the process had been expedited. The taste of bile rose into her mouth as her mind wheeled with unfounded assumptions. Maybe I’m disqualify, how embarrassing would that be. It wouldn’t be quite disqualification, she thought, more like… failure to meet pre-established requirements resulting in my ejection. Disqualified made it sound like I’d been qualified in the first place. 


McGonagall's lips were pressed tightly together, her jaw clenching and unclenching so that a muscle twitched in her face. “It was brought to my attention by Nurse Wainscott that your treatment requires potions of a chronically restorative and enhancing nature.” Alba’s breath was coming in shorter bursts, her chest tightening as fear threatened to spill over and take control of her respiratory processes. “I asked Mr. Hambledon to check in the official Triwizard Tournament Rules before he and Ms. Zhang made their trip to the school this afternoon.” 


Alba was aware that the portraits on the wall were quiet, attentive, grave almost. The effect was that the room was almost silent as she continued, her voice the only sound in the circular room.


“I’m sorry Alba, but the official rules state that potions used on oneself or another competitor in Triwizard Tournament is forbidden.” 


Alba: 3

Cerebral Palsy: 5


Official ruling- plus one for the Strengthening Solution, and one for the Pain Philter. 


A loud sniff came from the fireplace. As Alba had feared, Nurse Wainscott’s constitution was faulty. Her head was bent down to rest in her hands, her breath coming in the great gasps that Alba was fending off herself. 


“I am sorry, Ms. Williamson,” a soft, feathery voice came from her side. Hambeldon had turned towards her as he spoke. Her first impression of the man was immediate: grandfather. He looked like the type of man who belonged in a rocking chair, wrinkled, squinting eyes smiling at the bouncing toddler on his knee. “If the wording wasn’t so precise, we might be able to go around it, but as things are, there’s nothing to be done.” 


“Do you agree to desist taking your medications immediately?” Voda spoke up. His voice was startling, a window shattering an otherwise calm afternoon.


Nurse Wainscott's head snapped to his direction, her face streaked with tears, though there was a fiery light in her eyes as she spoke. 


“I hardly think that’s necessary. The next task isn’t for weeks-”


“And she should be beyond the influence of any potions before then!” Madame Maxime’s voice boomed. 


Alba’s heart was thumping, her eyes darting across the room as more and more adults spoke up. She couldn’t quite keep up with them, their points and counterpoints seeming to blur together as she tried to work out the reality of what they were asking her to do. 


Go through the entire school year, and all three tasks, without the most effective treatment she’d ever found. Essentially… ground zero. Level one. 


Just as panic was taking over, James pressed his warm hand into hers. She looked over at him, and the determination in his eyes. She’d made it through four years of school without Strengthening Solution, and six without Pain Philter. What was one more right? 


Alba stood, though she was still a full head and shoulders shorter than almost everyone else, and spoke up best she could, “Excuse me,” but the adults were too busy quarreling with another to pay attention to the source of their debate.


“Excuse me!” she shouted.


A few portraits expressed their opinions on her rudeness, but the ends justified the means. She had their attention. 


“I’ll do it,” she replied at an acceptable volume, aware that James still held her hand. 


“Alba, you don’t have to-” Nurse Wainscott started. 


“Apparently I do,” she interjected. 


“Thank you, Ms. Williamson, for your voluntary compliance,” Zhang spoke for the first time, “but I hardly think that completely abandoning your regimen is necessary. If I remember correctly, Strengthening Solution only retains its initial effectiveness for twenty-four hours, and after three days you can’t feel any discernable effects. After a week all traces are out of your system.” 


“The same can be said about Pain Philter,” Nurse Wainscott added, though her tone suggested she wasn’t sure why it was relevant, the crisp clean edge to her voice was as clinical as a surgical gauze “though its initial effectiveness can be prolonged if taken regularly, as Alba does, the effects would be processed in one week.”


Zhang’s pink smile widened, her eyebrows disappearing into straight cut bangs. “The use of Strengthening Solution and other enhancing potions are allowed to be taken during the pro-Quidditch season, so long as competitors leave ample time for any restorative properties to be processed by the body.” 


“Yes, that could work…” Hambledon was saying. 


A flair of hope lit up inside Alba’s chest. “You mean, I could take them, so long as I quit before each Task?” 


“In theory…” Zhang let the sentence hang. 


Predictably, Voda looked upset by the proposition, though he kept his mouth shut. Madame Maxime’s was opening and closing, making her look like a fish out of water. Nurse Wainscott, McGonagall, James, and Hambledon all seemed rather pleased with the idea. 


“The rules do say ‘in the Triwizard Tournament’ and not ‘for the duration of’. We could decide to interpret this as ‘in the tasks themselves’. After all, in the account of injury during the tournament, every means is administered to restore the participant back to full health. The wording allows for it,” Hambledon said.


She was liking him more and more.


“Well, there you go!” James exclaimed, squeezing her hand hard enough to press Alba’s cramped fingers painfully together. 


“He said ‘could decide’, young Potter,” Madame Maxime had finally found words. 


“Yes then, very well. I suppose we should put it to vote then?” McGonagall interceded. The adults in the room all looked at one another, as though waiting for a cue of some sort. 


“All those in favor of allowing Ms. Alba Williamson to continue her treatment until to the week leading up to the Triwizard Tasks, please raise your hand.” The voice was unfamiliar, and Alba turned in search of the man who had spoken. 


James nudged her with his elbow, nodding to the smallest portrait on the round walls, enclosed in a simple yet elegant frame directly above the front door. 


Albus Dumbledore smiled down at her as she pivoted in her chair. She heard the rustling of robes as a few raised their hands, but she couldn’t look away from the portrait, too afraid of what she might find in the room about her. 


“Then it’s settled,” Dumbledore finished. “The Judges of the Triwizard Tournament have decided, almost unanimously, to allow you to continue your regimen, so long as you adhere to the prescribed rules of the Tournament, as has already been discussed.” 


James let out a robust cheer, smiling at Alba wholeheartedly. 


“Good luck to you dear,” the portrait offered before turning from her and disappearing out of what looked to be an oil rendition of the very door he hung above. 

 


 

“So, who didn’t vote for it?” Alba asked James as the winding staircase slowly brought them back down to the corridor. 


“Maxime.” 


“Really? That was it? I expected Voda to not go for it as well.” 


“So did I. Maybe he’s a bit more reasonable than we think. I mean, all he’s really worried about is his Champion winning right? As long as you don’t have an advantage over Ivanovic during the Tasks, what does he care about your potions.”


“Then why didn’t Maxime vote for it?” Alba asked. 


“I don’t know. Women are conniving?” She raised his shoulders to his ears, offering his arms up in a ridiculous fashion that coaxed a reluctant smile at her, as was his intention, no doubt.


There were students littering the hallways, on their way to study, or eat, or get up to mischief. Alba was still trying to find her composure, and hoped she didn’t look too disheveled as one after another the students she passed looked her up and down, as though weighing her against their expectations in a Champion. 


“Are you hungry?” James asked, holding his hand out for her as they began to climb down yet another staircase. 


“I suppose I could eat,” she replied, attempting to forget that Ben may be waiting for her in the library. She didn’t feel like talking to him just yet though. 


The house tables were loaded with food when they entered the great hall. A good number of students had wandered down from their frivolities to grab a bite before heading off again. 


There was an live undercurrent to the student body, a low buzz filling the spaces between the walls of the Great Hall. The Judges were to be introduced at dinner, the official Triwizard Tournament Teams presented, and with them, any introduction to the First Task they might receive. 


As she heard snippets of conversation, Alba lost the little appetite she had managed to work up. It was too real. All the talk about the first task was bouncing around like a rogue curse, directed on her. 


“What if I just don’t show up?” she asked James in a horribly meek voice. 


“I don’t know, but I don’t think that’s an option. Don’t they say something about binding contracts with the Goblet and all that nonsense?” 


He was scanning the Gryffindor table, paying no real attention to her. Several of his extended family were waiting for him, and she waited for them to call him over, bombard him with questions on the break up. 


“Oi, James, Alba,” Rosie was calling, beckoning them both over with a jovial wave of her hand. “Don’t be a stranger!” 


Though she had been to the Potter’s residence a few times during holidays, Alba had been careful never to overstep her friend boundaries and pretend to know the rather infamous Weasley/Potter clan on a truly personal level. She knew their names, of course, and the occasional ‘hullo’ may be exchanged in the hallway, but she certainly had never been part of the gossip train, or questionable co-dependence. 


“Are you to be Companion then, James?” Lily was asking, her fiery red hair braided in a long plait that sat on her shoulder, falling to her waist. Alba always thought that Ginny had been rather persistent in her attempts to pass on her genetic traits, finally succeeding with her daughter. 


“Yes, it seems so,” James nodded her direction, sitting sideways on the bench so that he faced his little sister. 


“You can sit here Alba,” Albus scooted over on the opposite side. Alba shrunk her crutches silently and took a seat, trying not to worry about what would happen if Chandra decided to grab a bite while she was there.


“Well at least your fan girls won’t be too disappointed then. I’m sure dad and mum were happy to hear,” Rosie was saying, checking her eyeliner in a compact pulled from her purse.


“Will be happy to hear, you mean,” James corrected her, grabbing at about half a dozen sandwiches from the center of the table. “Bless those little elves,” he muttered under his breath, reaching for the chips. 


There was a sharp snap as the compact closed forcefully, “What?” his cousin snapped.


“You haven’t written your parents?” Alba asked him, startled.


He took his eyes off the food long enough to give her a reproachful look, mustard already dripping down his chin. “I’ve been a bit busy.” 


“You don’t have to eat yourself into a coma,” Albus teased, snatching one of the sandwiches from his plate. “I know that you like to gorge yourself to bloatation your big blowouts with the misses, but this is really ridiculous.”


In unison the female relatives present hissed at the insensitive comment, shushing Albus reproachfully for his lack of tact. 


“I’ll have you know that we’ve both,” he nodded to Alba, “have had a rather stressful day, and I am quite old enough to handle it, I just happen to be hungry thank you very much,” he took another bite and added “oh he-who-refuses-to-shave-when-rejected,” through a rather moist bite of sandwich. 


Though she didn’t have much to add, it was nice listening to them tease one another. It was something normal, average, predictable. Safe. Not like all the other topics buzzing about the Great Hall.


I can do this, Alba thought to herself, trying not to think about the painful days ahead. I’ll just stand tall and take it one step at a time. 

 

 


 

At dinner a few hours later, students from all Schools of Magic sat amongst one another, whispering excitedly as they waited for the presentation of the Tournament Teams. Friends talked animatedly to one another, looking this way and that for the students that may or may not end up participating. 


Alba was surprised at the number of people who were congratulating her. After the shock had worn off, perhaps they had started to hope a little that her brain could match the other boys’ brawn. She hadn’t met up with Ben in the library, too absorbed in everything that had happened, what dinner would entail, and the weeks after. She’d passed her time on the grounds, thoroughly throwing off her study schedule to enjoy a windy, chilly day wrapped in a scarf. He would forgive her. He would understand, but still she looked for his face as she entered the hall for dinner.  He was so tall, it would be easy to spot him, even in a group of people. Maude was no where to be seen as well, and she wondered if they hadn’t meet up in the library without her. Even if he wasn’t taking OWLS this year, Ben still needed to be careful with his studies...


“Ms. Williamson, if you could please collect your belongings and make your way over to the trophy room, the Headmistress would like to begin the proceedings.” Professor Pimbly placed a warm, boney hand on Alba’s shoulder as she practically whispered the words into her ear. “You’ll be able to join your classmates for dinner after the presentation.”


“Yes ma’am,” Alba muttered, trying to keep the blush from her cheeks as the heads around her turned, watching her move. They must all suspect her choice, waiting with bated breath to be proved correct, that the Potter boy would be the one she chose by her side. She bit on her lip as she stood, hoping to catch James’s attention without having to walk all the way over to the table.


He was in the middle, his luminous green gaze avoiding the far end of the table where a puffy eyed Chandra sat amid a group of hostile looking seventh-year girls. Alba took a deep breath, trying to steady her heart beat. 


Finally, James’s head turned just enough so that he would see her if only he paid attention. She gave a sharp whistle, shoving the two working fingers of her left hand into her mouth for a more effective tone. Sure enough, his head jerked to the side, and she motioned him to come with her, through the little door that she had walked through alone not too long ago. 


She was glad when they reached the door together. No one seemed to be staring straight at her, though Dimitri and the Vesela girl were directly behind them, Pierre and whomever he had chosen no where in sight. 


James held the door open for her as they went in, Dimitri motioning for Vesela to proceed. It irked Alba that the girl rolled her eyes at his kindness. She had a strong suspicion they really weren’t going to get along. Perhaps that would be to her advantage.


As she entered into the glittering space, firelight once again reflected off the shining metal surfaces. Alba saw that there were two figures already within. 


The first was the Beaxbatons Champion who had seemed so pleased with himself before, the other a freckled red-head that looked as though he could be a relative of James’s, if it weren’t for the ugly sneer etched across his face. They stood in identically guarded positions, legs spread with their hands folded over their chest. Their shoulders were touching, the only difference between the matching robes how they hung from the shoulders of their person. The Companion was smaller than his counterpart, shoulders arched in an unattractive slump.


The red-head uttered a line in french, to which Pierre Roux laughed at harshly. 


James pursed his lips, frowning. “What’d they say?” Alba whispered to him. He’d complained enough about the home-taught french lessons for her to know that they’d worked. 


“He said ‘they call this our competition. Two girls, and two scrawny boys.” 


“Is it against the rules to jinx them outside of Tasks?” she asked. The remark hadn’t particularly offended her, but the grin on James’s face was exactly what she’d been hoping for. He seemed so tense. 


“I think so, yeah…” he whispered back.


“Ah, Alba!” Dimitri was saying, coming forward to shake her hand, once again completely at ease with her oddities. “This must be your Companion. Very nice to meet you sir,” 


He offered a hand to James. Alba shifted her weight slightly so that she could bring the rubber tip of one crutch solidly down on James’s foot. He gasped slightly as he took the proffered hand, smiling through clenched teeth. She preferred no hesitation in returning the nicety, and the gesture seemed like the best way to assure it.


“And nice to meet you,” he managed to get out as she relieved the pressure. “I’m James Potter,” 


“Really?” Vesela’s sharp voice cut through the conversation, and she inserted herself with even less grace than Alba usually managed to stir up. “You are related to Harry Potter, then?” She demanded. 


“Uh...yeah,” James offered. Even his well-bred manners were shaken by her lack thereof. “He’s my dad, why?” 


“Why would you allow this girl to-” 


Alba’s patience had run out. “ ‘This girl’ is ‘allowed’ to do whatever the hell I please, regardless of his opinion. Now if you’ll excuse us, I believe we were having a conversation.” She turned her back to the girl, pointedly looking at Dimitri and searching for something to say when the door opened once more, Nurse Wainscott and Krum followed by a rather petite looking blonde woman Alba had never seen before. The blonde went over to the Beaxbaton boys, while Krum and Nurse Wainscott joined the small gathering closest to the door. 


“Ah, there is only one person you can be, fine sir! There is no hiding you are your father's son, master Potter,” Krum’s voice rang out as he clasped forearms with James. “I remember I saw you when you were just a wee little baby! Of course you wouldn’t be remembering that, it was much too long ago!” 


Now that they were close, Alba could see the grey peppered throughout the retired Quidditch player’s hair, and the way his eyes seemed to splinter and fracture like broken glass at the edges. Still, his voice was warm, and she smiled at him genuinely as he surveyed her. 


“I have been talking to your Nurse here, my good witch,” he was speaking to her now, glancing between Alba and the older woman kindly. “She tells me of your spirit.” He clasped a hand firmly on Dimitri’s shoulder, “Let us hope we can overcome your spunk!” he smiled, and Dimitri seemed to enjoy it as well. 


Thankfully, Vesela stayed silent, though the scowl on her face seemed to be permanent. 


As Krum gathered his students in a little further away, Nurse Wainscott came before Alba, taking her free hand and holding it gently in both of hers. “Are you ready?” she asked with a deep breath. 


Alba was relieved to see that warm, encouraging smile once again. If Nurse Wainscott had hope, there was hope to be had. Though as she heard the crisp voice of McGonagall through the quieting crowd outside, she wished that her mother were there. It didn’t matter if she had memorized the feel of her mother's soft finger on the bottom of her chin, pulling her head just a little higher, even if she knew in her bones the soft tone of the words, ‘stand tall’, it just wasn’t the same without her. 


All the teams gathered closer to the door to hear McGonagall as she introduced first Leatrice Zhang, and then Quinn Hambledon. The difference in applause was noticeable, as many people would recognize Zhang from her Quidditch days. 


“Without further ado,” McGonagall was saying, much sooner than Alba would’ve liked, “I would like to introduce the Beauxbaton Triwizard Tournament Team!” 


Pierre Roux, the red-headed boy, and blonde woman all straightened perceptibly at the announcement, pushing the door open quickly, eager to enter the Great Hall, greeted by a tremendous amount of applause. Alba caught sight of them crossing to the farthest end of the hall where Madame Maxime waited for them before the door shut behind with a solid thunk.


“Your Champion, Pierre Roux,” Mcgonagall continued, “Companion Cyrille Blanchett, and Coach, Professor Van Den Acker!”


More applause, a few cat calls, and the noise was leveling back out again, tension rising once again. 


Alba rubbed the textured handle of her crutch with one thumb, trying to sooth herself. She decided to refresh her Anti-slipping charms nervously while McGonagall continued.


“Please welcome the Durmstrang Triwizard Team- Champion, Dimitri Ivanovic, Companion Minodora Vesela, and Coach, Professor Krum!”


The roar from the crowd this time was deafening, even before the shining face of Dimitri bolted through the door, practically running up to the podium as Krum waived to the students cheering his name. The stopped at the closest end of the staff table, Voda clasping both Vesela and Ivanovic’s hands as they neared.


Alba’s braces and crutches were solid, her palms sweaty as she grasped the handles. James was next to her, strong and silent. He didn’t offer his hand out to her, and she would’ve have taken it even if he did. This hurdle was one she would have to jump on her own. Nurse Wainscott was opposite him, eyes forward, unworried about Alba. Their confidence gave her strength, so that when McGonagall’s voice filtered in once again, she was ready.


“And finally, the Hogwarts Triwizard Tournament Team!” Alba was thankful that this round of applause for her was much more hearty than the last. “Champion, Alba Williamson, Companion, James Potter-” several people let out hoots, “and Coach, Nurse Wainscott!” 


James held the door open for her with one hand. The sound rushed over her, as the did the candlelight as she stepped out of the little room and back into the Great Hall.


They were clapping for her. Up and down each table, people were clapping. Maybe not all too enthusiastically, no one was cat calling at her, though she was sure a few younger girls were swooning at James. They were applauding respectfully, and that was all she asked for, really.


Alba knew better than to rush herself, instead trying to make her strides seem purposeful,  not quick and hasty. James didn’t rush her, nor did Nurse Wainscott, waiting for her to take her place next to McGonagall at the center of the room.


Nurse Wainscott stayed on one side of the Headmistress, James passing behind the three woman to take his place at Alba’s other side. She knew he was a little nervous as he tossed his hair back, a tick she had noticed when he was trying to seem composed. The thought of his discomfort in front of an adoring crowd was amusing, and she was surprised to find a grin creeping into the corner of her mouth.


As the applause died down once more, McGonagall continued with the ceremony. 


“As the Teams have been chosen and approved by the panel of Judges, we will commence with the opening of the Triwizard Tournament!” 


Confetti exploded from mid air in a dozen different locations, showering everyone with silver and gold sparkles, the sound of trumpeting mingling with the delighted shrieks from the younger children. Even Alba couldn't keep the mirth from her face, reaching one hand up over her head to grab at the falling debris. 


McGonagall laughed as well for a moment before continuing. “Now, while we intend to keep the exact nature of the first Task a secret-” at the mention of the Task, the room quieted considerably, all those in attendance straining to catch every syllable of the introduction. “-we do have a little something for you to think on.” 


In unison, the Heads of the three schools pulled out their wands, waving them with a graceful flourish to produce three grey objects that hung in mid-air, spinning slowly as though on display. 


“These token from us, your judges, are the standard by which you will be measured. Take good care of them, this is the only clue you will recieve. On December first, you will present yourself for the First Task of the Triwizard Tournament. Good Luck!” 


As she finished her speech, the trinkets descended slowly, one coming to rest before each member of the Triwizard Team. Alba glanced to her left and right, making sure that the same could be said for the other two teams. 


Alba reached forward, picking the smooth, stone token from the air before her. She frowned at it, though it had done her no harm. The little thing was expertly crafted, all the edges smooth and flawless. She knew the design was classic, nothing overly elegant or complicated about it. Her mind was racing with the possibilities of what McGonagall had said, ‘these tokens… are the standard by which you will be measured…’ But how could she be measured against a game piece?


In her hand, slowly warming under the pulse of her quickening heartbeat, was a chess piece, the King, to be precise.  Confused and unsure, she glanced to her left, surprised to find that within James’s hands was a Bishop, the same color and size as her own piece. 

 

A quick look to the right, and there was a Knight, the stone horse's mouth open in what looked to be a painful protest, wild hair flowing forever blown back behind it as it reared its front legs from a squat base.


Three chess pieces, three weeks. That’s all she had to go by.

Chapter 10: There's a Girl I Know by Chelts-rhj

“Maybe, they want you to turn the three of us into pieces, and then we’ll be able to charge at each other…” James was leaning far to the right in his chair, keeping his head straight as he hissed at Alba through the side of his mouth. “Or maybe, you have to be all three pieces… I don’t know though, that’s really advanced transfiguration.”

 
Alba stared at the wall far at the front of the class, absentmindedly chewing on the end of her quill so that the fine fibers stuck together with spit. The well-lit walls were filled with pickled potions ingredients and other interesting things, but she wasn’t tracking any of the floating curiosities. For the past two weeks James had done nothing but spew possibilities at her, placing their two pieces side by side on the desk, dining table, library book, any semi-flat and stable surface large enough to hold the figures.

 

She’d seen and examined the pieces so many times, she was dreaming about them. There were no runes, no creases or hinges to hide a compartment within. She was reluctant to try and break them open, as she didn’t want to ruin her chances of divining some information out of the speckled gray granite. (She was fairly certain it was granite… though she wasn’t all that well read on geology.)

 

She admired the detail in the little pieces. James’s Bishop had slits for imaginary eyes in the head, the curves perfectly smooth and even all the way around. The bumps and ridges were thin, but the indents deep, casting attractive shadows down the body of the piece. Her King was slightly larger, a delicate embossed cross adorning the helm. Her favorite part of Nurse Wainscott’s piece, the Knight, was the mane. Dynamically posed with its mouth open, nostrils flaring and eyes wide, the length of hair running down the bust of the beast was intricately carved. The fine engraving was the work of an artist, giving the knight just the right touch to make it come alive, though as muggle chess pieces normally were, all three remained unmoving. 

 

Other than their static poses, all three pieces had one thing in common- the base. Around the very bottom edge was a pattern of swirls that Alba had obsessed over. She had spent the first week with her piece tracing every small detail, trying to find runes, constellation patterns, tea leaf symbols, anything that the crisscrossing elegant squiggles might mean. It was futile. They were merely decoration, nothing useful about them at all. 

 

“...Or maybe it’s just a three player game of chess. That would be interesting,” James continued. “Are you done with that crossword? I don’t think three down is in the right place…” 

 

There was an important equation written on the black board. Something Alba was supposed to remember, but the characters were swimming, turning into pawns and bishops charging through checkers… 

 

The shrill wail of the bell went off around them, halting James’s idle pratter. She’d lost track of when he’d started repeating himself. 

 

“Ms. Williamson,” Professor Pimbly was saying as the students gathered their things and vacated the room, “Would you please see me at the front of the class? Mr. Potter,  you as well.” 

 

They looked at each other, excitement spreading across James’s face like an inkblot on clean canvas. Alba assessed herself before turning towards the front of the room and decided that ‘nauseous’ probably described her best, and it wasn’t because James was right about the crossword puzzle, which she’d done in ink. 

 

“The weighing of the wands will take place now, please present yourself to classroom 103,” Pimbly informed them, as they came to her desk.

 

“What about dinner,” James asked gravely, as though it was of utmost importance.

 

His sombre tone coaxed a grin out of Alba, and Pimbly blinked a few times in surprise. “You, Mr. Potter, I’m sure will make it back before dinner, as your mother will not need to ask you many questions and Mrs. Zauberstabe has no need to inspect your wand.” She turned her capped head towards Alba, hat ridiculously straight and pointy. “After your interviews, a house elf will present itself to take your order. Please be prepared. It will be waiting for you in Ravenclaw tower.” 

 

The Professor fixed her with a hard stare, as though daring Alba to protest the exceptional treatment. “Yes ma’am,” she finally offered begrudgingly.

 

“What about my mum?” James asked.

 

Even with her bias, Alba had to admit he looked rather doofy with his mouth half open as he waited for an explanation as to why his mother would be part of the Weighing of the Wands. 

 

“I didn’t realize you hadn’t been informed,” Pimbly offered him a curt nod in apology, “Your mother will be conducting the interviews at the Weighing for a report in the Daily Prophet.” 

 

Relief washed through Alba, seeping between her ribs and allowing her breath to come easier, shoulders falling as she relaxed. Mrs. Potter was nice, warm; charming, with a wild side as visible as her flaming hair. Alba liked the woman’s honesty and had gained her respect, perhaps even a little of her favor, throughout the years of cavorting with her sons. Talking with Mrs. Potter wouldn’t be nearly as bad as talking with a stranger. With her understand of Alba’s medical history, there wouldn’t be too many questions about her condition.

 

“You’re excused,” Pimbly reminded them, her large, unpainted lips turned up in an amused smile at their hesitation. “You’ll do fine, Champion, Companion,” she nodded to each of them in turn. 


 

Ten minutes later, Alba was frowning at an over-eager blonde chatterbox. The cameraman was not tactful. “Goodness, me,” he exclaimed at the sight of her. “Do you want to sit down? They could stand around you, their hands on your shoulders-” 

 

“Stan, I’m sure our Champion can stand. Don’t worry, she’s good at it.” Ginny Potter winked at her, pushing the thin, younger man over to one side. “Now, why don’t you stand over here, that way we can shoot the lovely madame without a shadow… and JAMES!” 

 

Mrs. Potter had finally found her eldest child. She was smothering his perpetually disheveled hair down with a flat palm, only serving to stick a few pointy bits together, standing on tip toe to reach the top. “Look at you, here with Alba, and on time to boot. I knew she’d keep you in order.” 

 

James rolled his eyes, but bent to plant a kiss on his mother’s freckled cheek. Her outburst had drawn everyone’s attention, and the various participants in the Triwizard Tournament turned away as the encounter became more personal. 

 

Ginny reached up to wrap her son in an embrace, and Alba could hear her whispered encouragement, “We’re so proud of you. We know it couldn’t have been easy to stay out of the competition, but your father and I are both glad you can help Alba.” Apparently he hadn’t told them about the blank paper to save his reputation.

 

The cameraman Alba had decided not to like began directing people around the unused classroom, long bony finger pointing here and there as everyone was arranged. The pictures seemed to take forever. First he wanted a group picture, with the Heads and Tournament Teams together, then only the Champions, then only Companions, now pairs, now only students…

 

Just as Alba was about ready to tell him he could shove his foul smelling camera somewhere unpleasant Ginny put a hand on his shoulder and quietly said, “I think that’s enough.” 

 

Alba figured that Mrs. Potter must really be in charge of the situation, because he didn’t argue, simply nodded and backed off, wiping the end of his camera with a conjured cloth. 

 

“Well, I believe that’s all we need from the Companions, so please, go and enjoy dinner.” She embraced James before he left,continuing to smile at his retreating figure even as the door shut behind him, Vesela and Blanchett in front.

 

It was only closed a moment before a tall Hufflepuff Prefect opened it once more, coming in and stepping aside to allow room for the small, rather shabby looking woman behind him.

 

“Thank you Ormsby,” Mcgonagall told the boy, who nodded politely and left. She addressed Alba, Pierre, and Dimitri next. “This is Mrs. Zauberstabe. She is a prominent wand maker, and has agreed to perform the Weighing of the Wands for several years now. If you would please, when directed hand over your wand for inspection and official presentation.” 

 

There was a murmur of assent, but mostly the Champions were watching Zauberstabe. Her grey hair hung down past her shoulders beneath a patched hat, and her eyes darted about the room in a haze. Her name rang a bell in the back of Alba’s mind, but she couldn’t place what book the surname had been hidden. It bothered her, an itch at the back of her skull that distracted from the present. 

 

“Ladies first,” Pierre intoned, though from the wicked grin on his face, he meant it as some kind of insult. 

 

Alba stepped forward, towards the middle of the room where the worn lady had sat herself on an uncomfortable looking wooden stool. 

 

She didn’t say anything, only held out a weathered, wrinkled hand with a blank expression. 

Alba gulped, trepidation rising in her throat as she prepared to hand her wand over the stranger. 

 

Alba had noticed, through the years, that witches and wizards were very different when it came to their wands. Some were rather careless, setting it down wherever, knicks and dings common and not worth any worry. Others took pride in their wands, polishing them nightly, keeping them locked away safely in boxes while they slept and reluctant to set them down otherwise. 

 

Alba supposed she was somewhere in between. There was a scratch down the length of her wand, but it wasn’t dirty. She was not worried about it snapping in two every time she let it go, but she wasn’t going to be throwing it about the dormitory either. 

 

As she handed her wand to the old woman in the chair, it wasn’t with any embarrassment, and the blossoming smile she got in return had her holding her head a little higher. 

 

The woman's voice was like the turn of a page, soft and yet full of the promise of something more, “Beautiful, absolutely lovely. Ebony, you’ve got a strong will in you. No fear. Haven’t made many myself, they tend to sit on the shelves waiting.  Ten and three-quarter inches,” she placed one of her fingers on the tip and wiggled it back and forth a little. “As one would expect, only slightly yielding.” Alba was a little alarmed as she pointed the wand directly at her weathered face, bringing it closer and closer, until she finally explained, “The unicorn hair in this wand is odd. I think perhaps it was from a foal, still golden. Very interesting…” 

 

Mrs. Zauberstabe’s knobbly hands grasped Alba’s wand firmly, swirling the dark wood around her head until little clouds popped up, tiny droplets of rain falling over her silver hair, vanishing before they hit the floor. “It will serve you well,” she offered to Alba when finished.

 

Alba smiled, and accepted her wand back gratefully while resisting the urge to stroke it like some pet that behaved well. 

 

Dimitri stepped forward next. Even Alba, standing several paces back, could see several dents and scratches adorning the length of his auburn wand, but when he handed it over the Zauberstabe women laughed instead of chiding him.

 

“Well, I can see you and this wand are well acquainted,” she fingered some of the more serious defects. 

 

A soft voice from behind startled Alba, pulling her attention away from the examination. “Alba, if you’re ready, we’ll step next door and get the interview done,” Mrs. Potter was saying. A little disappointment must have shown in her face, because as they walked out of the room the woman added kindly, “You’ll be able to read about their results in the article, dear.” 



 

The classroom next door to where the Weighing was taking place was unused as well, chairs stacked on top of the desks, cupboards empty, and -though nothing had a speck of dust on it- the air was stale and still. Alba waited patiently as Mrs. Potter readied her pen and notepad, pulling reading glasses from a purse at her side and placing them gently on her nose. 

 

“What made you decide to enter?” Ginny posed first, and Alba’s stomach gave a lurch, her mind thinking of a dozen better ways to start the conversation.

 

“Well, uh… You know, I haven’t had many adventures while I was in school, and I figured why not-erm...end it on a bang?” The answer sounded strange, strong start with a weak finish that came out as a question, but Ginny just nodded and took notes. 

 

“What were the main factors in deciding who your Companion and Coach would be?” 

 

Alba felt a little better about answering questions that didn’t require her to lie. “I knew that I needed someone familiar with my capabilities. Someone who wasn’t going to be hung up on what I couldn’t do, but would be familiar with everything I can. And they- Nurse Wainscott and James- both know me better than anyone else. There were really no other choices to be had.” 

 

Ginny’s head seemed to be stuck in a permanent nod, her hair continuing to bounce up and down as her eyes tracked the words written on paper. 

 

The questions continued, most of them easy, a few funny, until finally Ginny looked up. “Well, I think I have enough here, Alba. Thank you so much!” 

 

“You’re welcome Mrs. Potter. Honestly, I’m just glad it’s you,” she admitted, accepting the warm embrace Ginny offered with outstretched hands. 

 

“Me too, dear. I was worried they’d pass me up and give it to someone else, but after James was announced Companion…” she gave Alba a conspiratorial glance “I think they want me to try and get some inside dirt or something. Like that’s going to happen. Teenage boys aren’t known for being open and honest to their parents.” 

 

They laughed, said their goodbyes, and before Alba could take more than three steps down the hallway an elf popped up beside her, bowing deeply before asking what ‘the young miss’ would like for dinner. Obeying Pimbly’s directions, Alba ordered her meal quickly, nodding awkwardly as the elf bowed, his long nose brushing with the stone floor before disappearing again. 

 

All in all, the day hadn’t been half bad. She still had no solid idea what the first task was, but she’d gotten through her first brush with the press without a bump or bruise to show for it. 

 

Alba: 6

 

Cerebral Palsy: 4

 

That night, as she climbed the Ravenclaw tower one laborious step after the other, Alba thought of what her picture would like on the front of the Daily Prophet. It was difficult to show inner character in a simple moving picture, but she had seen the way proud Quidditch players commanded a sense of pride and belonging amongst their compatriots in photographs that made them stand taller than the rest, no matter their height. She repeated the words ‘stand tall’ over and over again until she conquered the staircase. 

 

Alba: 7

 

Cerebral Palsy: 4

 

Sometimes it was the little things that got you through.




 

Two days later, Alba was enjoying a nice hot bowl of oatmeal in the Great Hall when Ben plopped down beside her with a thud, nearly making her swallow the spoon. 

 

His booming voice rang out, purposefully ensuring everyone present could hear, “ ‘...Confident and charming, Hogwarts Champion Alba Williamson relayed a desire to make the most of her last year of Hogwarts, jokingly saying “Why not end it on a bang?” when asked what her reasons were for entering the Triwizard Tournament. While she certainly has her own weaknesses, even her wand tells of her strength of character…’ Have you read this? Your review is brilliant, and she did a good job with the other teams too,” he added as an after thought, scanning the front page of The Daily Prophet at arms length. Alba noticed Nurse Wainscott waving jovially out at them from the front. “ ‘...Outgoing and rather funny, Durmstrang Champion Dimitri Ivanovic is as easy on the eyes as he his on the nerves. While certainly capable, and well acquainted with heavy wand work, the blonde youth is as comfortable with people as he is with conflict. “I’d rather shake your hand and share a joke,” he offered, “but I’ll not back down from a fight.”...’  Seems like an alright bloke all together. Wouldn’t be sad to see him get second.” 

 

Alba smiled. Of course Ben would only be satisfied if she won.







“Yes, I’ve read it,” Alba offered, answering his initial question. “Mrs. Potter sent a copy of it before they printed it. She seemed rather pleased as well. I think it’s brilliant. I hate when it’s all about our Champion and the others are almost forgotten.” 

 

As Ben was nodding at her, James yawned and took the chair before her, a small thunk accompanying his chess piece as he set it before her. 

 

“Knight to E3,” he said in a distorted yawn-voice. 

 

“Bishop to E3, Bishop takes Knight,” she countered. She’d had all night to think about what he was going to do, and prepared a defense. 

 

As the only practical assumption to make about the task was ‘a chess game’ of some sorts, they’d started a mental match between the two. The only problem was James was rather awful at mental chess. He couldn’t remember where any of her pieces were. 

 

“Damn,” he cursed, but it lacked conviction or surprise, deadened by the sleep still lurking in his eyes. 

 

“Are you two still going at that?” Ben asked, grabbing a plate of eggs. At least one of her friends could function normally in the morning. Maude had most likely been up for hours and James wouldn’t be completely sentient for another two, at least. Ben seemed perfectly fine.

 

“It’s the only thing we have to do,” she told him.

 

“Queen to F6?” James asked. He was lying on the table, his head an inch above the grainy wood, searching for the orange juice. He half-heartedly made a grab at it, thrusting one hand forward across the table, but falling short by a hair’s breadth. Instead sitting up a little, he let his head bang on the table, arm falling back to his side in defeat.

 

“You can’t move like that with your queen. Straight lines, James. Straight lines in literally any direction. And what is wrong with you?” she asked. It wasn’t like him to sleep at the breakfast table, even if he wasn’t exactly a morning person.

 

As most of his mouth was pressed against the wood, his response was mostly moans with a few grunts. 

 

“Sorry, didn’t get that, one more time?” Alba poked him with the end of her spoon. 

 

He lifted his head enough to frown at the assault. “I had a late night,” was all he said. 

 

Instinctively, Alba scanned the Gryffindor table. Chandra was sitting with two of her better friends, her usually perfectly curled hair thrown into a haphazard ponytail. Apparently he hadn’t been the only one to go through a rough night. 

 

She wanted to ask if they were still fighting, or if they were on friendly terms again. She wanted to know if they’d continued snogging, as some couples did, or if they still held hands when no one was watching. She wanted to know if they were fighting about her. There were many, many things she wanted to know. But only one question she would ask. 

 

“Are you ok?” she intoned. 

 

His returning smile was tired, but genuine, “Yeah, I’m good.” 

 

The relaxed note in his voice confirmed that he’d spoken with her in the last twelve hours. The shy way his head ducked down and his eyes drifted to one side indicated there were happy memories, most likely recent ones. In short, all the adorable things she looked forward to seeing were present once more. He always came alive when she entered his life again. And that’s a good thing… she told herself. It really is…

 

“So, I’ve come up with your emblem,” James changed the subject, grinning at her.

 

Ben set his fork down, eyeing James in anticipation, his mouth too full of food for him to voice any demands.

 

The last Triwizard Tournament had played host to some of the best Companions they’d seen yet. Each Champion’s counterpart took it upon themselves to choose a mascot of sorts for their team. Three animals were chosen for each participant, and the various students could sport whichever ‘emblem’ they wanted in order to show their support.

 

There had been quite a few whispers going around, as The First Task was rapidly approaching, on whether or not the Companions would continue with the practice this year. 

 

Several fan girls had been quite excited to see a tribal looking horse appear on the back of Pierre Roux’s robes a few days before. Of course, his Companion boasted loudly that he’d drawn the design himself, taking ‘the stallion’ from Pierre’s family crest as inspiration for the team’s emblem. 

 

James promptly rose to the challenge, doodling away as he attempted to find Alba’s perfect animal counterpart. His initial suggestions had been rather disappointing. The eagle downright uninspired. 

 

As he dug around in his bag for a moment, Alba couldn’t wait to see his newest idea. 

 

It was simple, tribal looking as Roux’s had been, so that it seemed to match and counter her opponent’s appropriately. The artistic outline of an elephant in white stood out in stark contrast against the black background, a touch that Alba rather enjoyed. It was mostly arches, the lines starting in points and angles that thickened at the apex before meeting again at the end of their run. He had included a tusk, the line of it protruding out of the trunk with a sharp point, the edge of competition that the other elegant, flowing lines lacked.

 

All in all, it got the point across. Elephants were intelligent, steadfast, strong, and yet not all that coordinated, much like herself. As Pierre Roux had an emblem that shared his strength and physical prowess, the elephant, as a matriarchal creature, would be a nice nod to the fact that she was the only female Champion this year. The finishing touch, the color of her emblem matching the meaning of her name, was really Alba’s favorite part. 

 

“Wow,” Ben offered before she could find words. 

 

James seemed rather pleased with himself, and, still speechless, Alba decided that nodding vigorously got the message across just fine. 

 

“Ooo! James, I love you!” she practically shouted a moment later, diving under the table for her bag. 

 

“Well, I know I’m rather dashing, but why do you love me so suddenly?” 

 

“You’ve just helped solve my crossword! Seventeen across, ANTITHESIS!” 

 

Ben shook his head, beaming at her. “Whatever you say, dear.” 





“I can’t do it,” Alba whined for the millionth time, shaking her head. The brown mess had grown long enough to bounce about, tickling her ears again.

“It’s too late for that dear,” Nurse Wainscott replied sternly from the foot of her cot. “You can do this. You’ve done it before, and you’re going to do it now.” Her wrinkled eyes were steady as they stared into Alba’s. 

 

A single hot tear fell down Alba’s cheek. Her stretches hurt again. Walking hurt again. Everything hurt again. The First Task was only three days away, and it was the only topic of conversation to be had. The Hogwart’s Team’s white elephant was sported by most of the members of her house, but generally the students of her alma mater could be seen with green stallions or red spiders, supporters of Roux and Ivanovic much more common in the hallways. She couldn’t blame them. They did seem to be logical choices given the circumstances. Even the elder Potter boy on her side didn’t sway their opinions. 

 

“What if I fail?” her voice seemed much too small in the empty wing, as though she wasn’t strong enough to even fill the empty air.

 

“Then you’re still the best this school has to offer. The Goblet knew that. Don’t forget it,” her Coach whispered back.

 

The edges of Nurse Wainscott’s chess piece cut into Alba’s hand as she held onto it tightly, reaching forward towards where her toes pointed obstinately at the opposite wall instead of the ceiling. When she’d agreed to discontinue her treatment, her memories of the past had been faulty. It was much more difficult than she remembered. Much more embarrassing. Now she wished she’d refused at least a little more, or at least shown some indignation.

 

Relaxing her legs after a few counts, Alba forced herself to attempt optimism. She pondered on Nurse Wainscott’s words, watching the woman bustle about, obsessively tidying up, humming to herself as though she had absolute faith in Alba. The good Nurse was right, Alba decided. The Cup thought she was best chance the school had at winning even when she disagreed, and that had to count for something. As she climbed into bed, Alba took comfort in the waving figure of Nurse Wainscott, beaming out from beside her own little black-and-white copy.




 

“Alba, how long have you been awake?” Maude’s voice floated on a whisper through the Ravenclaw dormitory. Alba turned towards her with a start, taking her eyes off the horizon for the first time in quite awhile.

 

It had been a long night. She’d tossed and turned through most of it, caught a few hours of sleep, and then became painfully aware that it had finally come: the task was upon her.  

 

“I wanted to watch the sun come up,” she whispered back to Maude. It was true. In the early hours of the morning dread, adrenaline, something had kept her from dozing off again, and she had taken up residence in the cozy blue armchair by one of the windows in the tower. 

 

Maude’s footsteps were muted on the hard floor as she make her way over the cold stones to Alba. She simply placed a hand on her shoulder and offered a smile, but it made Alba feel a little stronger. Somewhere over the course of the year, Maude had become her friend. And while it was unexpected, the support was appreciated. 

 

“Do you want to come down to breakfast with me? There usually aren’t that many people,” Maude asked softly, gathering robes and other various articles of clothing from her trunk. 

 

“I’ll make my way down there eventually, don’t wait up. It may take me awhile to get there.” She bent down to rub her calf, pushing deep into the muscle as she ran her thumb down the length of her leg. “I’ve got a lot of stretching to do.” 

 

“Ok. I’ll wait there for you. Maybe Ben and I can go to the stadium with you and James?” it was posed as a question, as though she was asking permission. 

 

“Sure, if you want,” Alba winced as she pushed her feet flat onto the ground, the strain on her achilles tendon coaxing a grimace from her. 

 

“Don’t be too hard on yourself. See you soon,” Maude offered before closing the door quietly. Alba glanced at the other four poster beds in the room, but none of the curtains rustled. They’d all pretty much gotten used to the two early birds. 

 

Twenty minutes later Alba had stretched enough to fit into her bracers, and she strapped them on carefully, making sure to renew her anti-slipping jinxes. Once the forearm crutches were returned to their usual height, she glanced at herself in a mirror, taking the time to tuck one stray strand of hair behind her ear before heading down to the common room. 

 

“Good luck today, Alba!” Wilhelmina offered as she left, the other’s finally rousing from beauty sleep. 

 

“Thank you,” she tried to sound genuine, but it came out as a croak. 

 

She took the stairs down slowly, terrified that she’d take a tumble and end up in the hospital wing before she could even make it to the task. 

 

“There you are,” Ben’s voice greeted her as she planted her crutches on the common room floor. “Maude came down ages ago, said you’d be right behind her.” 

 

“Why were you up that early?” she asked, inspecting him. He seemed perfectly fine. No bags under his eyes, clothes fresh and hair combed. He had to have been up almost as early as she was. 

 

“I didn’t want you to head down alone,” he told her as though the answer were obvious.

 

Sometimes she forgot how his brain worked, but the gesture made her grin. “Well thank you,” she offered him. 

 

“You know, we attempted some face painting last night, but it didn’t work out that well. White doesn’t show up on half of us, so we were thinking about doing black outlines with the white, but that didn’t end up looking good either.” 

 

“I appreciate the effort, but I might make fun of you if you all had white elephants painted on your heads. Who is we?” 

 

“Boys dorm. They wanted to just change the color, but I told them you liked it white. I think they’re still working on something, a banner maybe. I guess we’ll see.” He opened the door for her, and held it as she navigated the threshold with her spindly metallic extensions.

 

Her stomach lurched a little, worried that her feet would suddenly be lifted from the floor, stairs disappearing under them as they flew down. Insead Ben headed for the stairs first, descending a step or two before turning back to the landing and offering his arm. 

 

She hesitated a moment, unsure as to whether she should accept it. The truth was she wasn’t in good shape, and the help would be greatly appreciated, but everything was complicated with Ben. They’d never actually discussed the “...when I want to hold you…” episode, both much more comfortable with pretending it never happened. 

 

As though he knew her dilemma, he bowed formally, insisting, “I’ll be a perfect gentleman, I swear.” 

 

“You’re hopeless, Benjamin,” she said as her palm met his.

 

But he only laughed, and soon the stairs were flying by. First one staircase, then another, and another. She began to seriously consider whether or not dropping his hand at the last step every time was really that necessary. Soon enough another staircase would pop up, he’d reach out, she’d take his hand, they’d work together, and then she would drop his. He never dropped her hand. It make her wonder if he would just hold her hand forever if she let him. 

 

The doors to the Great Hall were in view. 

 

She didn’t let go as the last step vanished under her feet. But three steps across the floor her mind was racing and her blood pumped too loudly for her veins.There simply wasn’t enough room in her mind, the trial ahead too great to add anything else, so she dropped it, hoping she hadn’t hurt his feelings.

 

The half smile Alba caught stuck in the corner of his mouth convinced her she had nothing to worry about. If anything, the prolonged contact had encouraged his bad behavior. 

 

She would need to remember MELODRAMATIC for the half done crossword puzzle in her desk. It may fit in, but she wasn’t quite sure. Perhaps a different form of ‘melodrama’...

 

Even though there weren’t that many people in the Great Hall, and most of them sported red spiders or sea-green horses, there was a round of clapping as she entered the Hall, Nearly Headless Nick nodded respectfully so that his head wobbled atop his frilled collar. 

 

The support warmed her a little, and Alba thought she may actually be able to eat something. 

 

She was mistaken. As the first bite of bacon landed in her stomach, its instability became quite apparent. Alba worried that she’d heave it up right there on the table, and forced it to stay down by sheer force of will, pushing the plate over to Ben. 

 

“Not hungry?” he asked after swallowing his own bulging mouthful. 

 

“Not particularly…” she managed to reply through her gag reflex. 

 

“You really should eat something,” Maude was saying from across the table. “That way you don’t look too peaky in the pictures after you win.” 

 

“She’s right,” Professor Pimbly’s muted voice came from further down the table. “Why don’t you try a little toast. I’m sure that will settle your stomach nicely.” Her smile was warm, larger than usual, and Alba was having a hard time remembering why she didn’t particularly like the woman. 

 

Three pieces of toast were presented from several angles. Pimbly, Maude, and Ben had all managed to procure their own slices from varying plates of bread strewn down the Ravenclaw table. Not wanting to offend her teacher, she accepted the slightly smaller piece from Pimbly, reluctantly nibbling on a crunchy corner. 

 

The Professor bent down and lowered her voice further, so Alba had to strain to hear. “Just so you’re aware, I heard from a reliable source that several teachers have placed bets in your favor. So even if you feel as though the student body doesn’t expect you to do well, the older, wiser, wizarding community has faith in your abilities.” The wink that punctuated her encouragement was entirely unexpected, leaving Alba’s mouth hanging open as the austere woman made her way to the tall backed chair waiting for her at the staff table. 

 

Alba was still mulling over Pimbly’s words as she slowly trudged down the path towards the stadium where most of the Triwizard Tasks were held. The ground beneath her feet was uneven, dusted with weeds, loose rocks, and roots of the nearby trees dotting the edge of the Forbidden Forest. She could feel the braces strapped to her feet digging into her sore, tight calves as she struggled to find balance. James was standing slightly behind her, his hands occasionally jerking forward to ensure her continued safety. Her enchantments wore off halfway there, but there was nothing to do but grit her teeth and push forward. Even if she renewed them they’d just break again before she reached the Team Tent. 

 

Ben and Maude were a few paces before them, talking team dynamics at a leisurely pace so as to not leave her behind. 

 

“I think his reasoning must be to play off their strengths, right? I mean, Vesela doesn’t seem to like him at all,” Ben was saying to her. 

 

Just this morning the two Durmstrang students were arguing with each other again in Russian, or whatever language they knew. 

 

“I believe so as well. Not sure what Pierre was thinking with that Blanchett character, what’s his first name?,” Maude asked. 

 

Though the first to create an emblem, the Beauxbatons Companion seemed to idolize Pierre in a ridiculous manner, following him around like a lap dog waiting on his beck and call. 

 

“Cyrille probably feeds his ego, that’s all,” Ben answered.

 

The large stadium was finally visible around the bend of trees, a hollow made specifically for the years the Triwizard Tournament would be held at Hogwarts. It was larger on the inside than on the out, so that the structure was no more visible than the quidditch pitch, but able to house whatever task needed within its walls.

 

To one side of the mostly wooden structure was a small tent, draped in all three School’s colors. The Team Tent, as it was referred to.

 

Maude and Ben turned as they drew nearer. Both seemed nervous and unsure, their color a little pale in the morning light, though Alba assumed she may match.

 

“See you on the other side,” she offered to them both, nodding. Maude stepped forward to give her a quick hug before skittering off to the entryway. 

 

“You’re going to be brilliant, you know,” Ben said, putting a heavy hand on her slim shoulder. 

 

“Damn right she is,” James said from behind, heading towards the tent. “Best be going,” he was saying. 

 

Ben took a few steps backwards, raising his hand in a small wave before turning and jogging after Maude. 

 

“Let’s go,” she sighed to James, concentrating on the ground beneath her feet once again, once again reminding herself she had too much on her mind to ponder the Honeypucker problem.


 

A short time later a large number of people had gathered under the tent, elbow room becoming increasingly less common.

 

Each of the three Teams were grouped together, Alba pressed between James and Nurse Wainscott, while the Judges were lined up at the front,  Madame Maxime taking up half their room. Mrs. Potter and the photographer were present, standing off to one side and looking attentively towards the front. 

 

After a moment Quinn Hambledon looked at his watch, cleared his throat, and stepped forward. 

 

“Ladies and gentleman, as we are about to commence with the First Task, it is time that I explain to you the terms of this competition. I trust you have brought your tokens?” As the nine members of the Triwizard Teams brought out their chess pieces, he nodded and continued. “Good, good. Now, as we said before, these pieces will be the standard on which you are judged, literally so. Out there,” he gestured to the door that would lead them into the stadium, in front of the waiting crowd, “are five objects of varying magical degrees for each of you. We expect you to create these three pieces from those materials, as close to an exact copy as you are capable of producing. You will be able to retry at your leisure, and when you are satisfied with the product, there will be a column on which to place what you would like to submit for judgement.” 

 

Alba frowned. There was a catch, there had to be a catch. She looked to either side, finding similar expressions of distrust on her competitor’s faces. 

 

“You may wonder where the challenge is?” Leatrice Zhang added, smiling as she stepped forward next to Mr. Hambledon. “You will all be competing at once, with free access to competitors materials and unfinished products. However, there are rules,” she was surveying each of them in turn, making direct eye contact as she continued. “You are not allowed to curse another competitor directly. You are not allowed to vanish opponent’s materials. Once placed atop your column, all pieces are protected and irremovable until after judging. You are required to make one of each of the chess pieces given your team. Once three pieces have been submitted,  you will be blocked off from the remaining Champions, no longer able to influence their materials. Any questions?” 

 

Alba turned a little red as James’s hand shot into the air. 

 

“Yes, Potter?” Zhang asked, slightly amused. 

 

“Are you able to describe the terrain in which this task is to take place?” he asked quite seriously. 

 

Alba agreed. It was a valid question. 

 

“I’m afraid not. Your Champion will find out shortly. Any other questions?” Everyone remained still and quiet. “You have,” she glanced at a thin silver watch adorning her wrist, “five minutes from now to confer as a team, then the Champions will exit with the Judges, and the Coaches and Companions will join the spectators in the stands,” she nodded to each of them in conclusion. 

 

“Subterfuge,” James was whispering to her as the three of them put their heads together in a huddle. “It’s your best chance to get ahead early. Look at Pierre,” he nodded to his left, where the boy was shooting dirty looks at the Durmstrangs on the far end of the tent. “He’s pretty much dismissed you as a competitor, and he’s just proud enough to have a temper. If you can, try and make it look like Dimitri is fighting him. It may give you enough time to get a piece or two in while they fight amongst themselves. You do know the right spell, right? I haven’t the slightest.”

 

“I think that’s a good idea,” Nurse Wainscott added, ignoring the last bit. “Teach them not to underestimate you.” 

 

They each handed her their pieces, and Alba was thankful for all the attention she had paid to the tiny carvings in the bottom. Perhaps the boys had overlooked them, and wouldn’t be able to duplicate the design. 

 

“Alright, if you would please exit the tent, Coaches, Companions,” Mr. Hambledon said, “we’d like to begin.” 

 

 

 

 

 

The sun was bright, and Alba blinked a few times to adjust to the glow bouncing off the arena before her. There was no vegetation. Everything seemed to be concrete and sterile, a white that reflected the light with annoying clarity. The roar from the crowd reminded her of static on her father’s old television, the noise accompanying the blurry white images before her. She placed one rubber tipped crutch on the white floor, thankful it had grip and was not slippery. There were indeed three large columns placed in triangle formation in the center of the circular room. Across from each, on the outer edge of the arena, were rectangular foundations, like an elongated podium. Alba could see that a black cloth was draped over the top, several ominous bumps concealed beneath it.

 

Mcgonagall gestured for Alba to follow her, the elderly Headmistress heading towards the column closest to the entrance. 

 

There was a booming voice addressing the crowd, but Alba wasn’t able to divert enough attention away from the rapidly approaching column to make out exactly who was speaking, much less what they were saying. There was a blue glow emanating from the top of the circular podium, while hisses and snaps were coming from under the black cloth. 

 

“The round column is for your finished products, Ms. Williamson. When the signal is given, the black clothes will be removed, and the task will begin. The other competitors are at their stations. Best of luck.” She nodded curtly, smiling encouragingly as she made her way towards where Leatrice Zhang and Quinn Hambledon were waiting behind the judges table. 

 

Alba tried to ignore the sounds coming from the square podium and attempted to make out what the announcer was saying. 

 

“-as our Champions are taking their positions, we will ready the arena!” 

 

The ground beneath her began to rumble slightly, so that the tremors moved their way up her crutches and into her arms, jarring her shoulders a little. A seam in the ground appeared, a circle trapping her in with the column and podium as she rose into the air, coming level to stands above. The other Champions were still close, enough so that she could see the smug grin on Pierre’s face from her right, and caught a glint of gold on Dimitri’s hand as he waved at the crowd. 

 

Alba’s breath came faster and faster, the words of the announcer jumbling together as she tried to review the plan. Curse Pierre first. Count on a retaliation to distract Dimitri. Take advantage and finish products as quickly as possible. 

 

“On the count of three-” 

 

Sabotage. 

 

“One,” 

 

Distraction.

 

“Two,”

 

Completion.

 

“Three!”

 

Alba gasped as the cloth covering the square podium before her vanished. 

 

The items were indeed ‘varying’ in magical degree, and she recognized them all almost immediately. To her far right was a depression in the solid structure, filled to the brim with a clear, shimmering potion. Next to it was a swaying plant, roots showing through the clods of dirt at its base. The swaying vines and snapping appendages gave it away as a venomous tentacula, while next to it, struggling to get out of the rope net holding it down, a young acromantula was clicking ominously at her, black eyes shining in the sunlight. A violet flame burned brightly a few inches above the hard surface, throwing an odd glow about the pile of gold coins next to it. 

 

“The Champions have several interesting obstacles in front of them, this is no average art lesson!” the announcer’s magnified voice rang through the stadium, setting a pace to everything, a nagging reminder that everyone was watching.

 

It took only a moment to petrify the acromantula, as she was careful to aim for the eyes, a sure weak spot. Once completed she turned around, desperately searching for the best way incapacitate Pierre to the fullest. 

 

Her breath came a little quicker as she found the perfect remedy. She lifted her wand at the precise moment he did, both aimed at something before him, though her target was the podium. “Epoximise,” she breathed before quickly turning back around to her own materials, unable to take the time to observe its effect.

 

The Venomous Tentacula was attempting to reach her, pulling itself forward little by little, rocking backwards and forwards in with every snap in her direction.

 

The announcer started up again, “It appears as though Roux is experiencing- woah, he’s turned on Ivanovic! I believe he’s done something with the spider, IT’S BEEN MULTIPLIED!”

 

Alba smirked, step two completed, and directed her wand at the gold on the opposite end of the podium, giving it a complicated little swish. The gold compiled upon itself, morphing into a solid shape. There was a yell from behind in Dimitri’s direction, but she couldn’t break her concentration by turning to look. She pieced together the right pronunciation for what she was attempting and let the details of Nurse Wainscott’s Knight token fill every corner of her mind. 

 

“Ivanovic is still dealing with the spiders, but Roux is just not happy with the distraction” the magnified voice informed her.

The gold began churning, turning, shrinking and fading until it took on the dark, bespeckled color of the chess piece, the lines and grooves settling into place as Alba envisioned the gentle curvature of the mane, trying to shut out the loud commentary.

 

No longer able to resist temptation, she turned her head to glance back at the boys. 

 

James’s plan had worked perfectly. From what she could see, Roux had attempted to Transfigure one of his objects as she had placed the binding curse on the podium. The attempt was a grotesque looking lump of what may have been a partially solidified potion, or perhaps half melted gold. Dimitri had gotten the short end of the stick, his acromantula having been shrunk and multiplied so that a dozen tiny venomous spiders were running about his column as Pierre attempted to sabotage his other materials while trying to separate his own from the gooey substance that had adhered itself to everything.

 

Her own spider was proving too dangerous to continue unchecked, having thrown off the body bind curse, the thing immediately started chewing away at it’s rope bindings, venom practically dissolving the thin fibers. As she began another complicated bit of transfiguration, Alba tried to remember the proportions of the curved Bishop piece, satisfied with the way her replication came to a point at the end. Two pieces down.

 

“Williamson seems to have made some progress, though all Champions are at 0 of 3 submitted entries! Not sure what’s holding her up, but Ivanovic will be back on point soon, now that those spiders are contained. Hopefully Roux has a plan for his sticky ordeal!”

 

Alba glanced behind in spite of herself. Both boys had their backs turned, until Dimitri Ivanovic spun around quickly, running the three steps to the edge of his podium to place one hard earned piece atop the column of blue light. There was a roar from the crowd, and he went back to his podium as she turned to survey hers as well. 

 

“There’s one for Durmstrang! Dimitri Ivanovic submitting his first piece for the judges!”

 

Alba had refrained from submitting her pieces on purpose. The distance wasn’t a great one, but it would cost her time to walk it more than once. While she knew they weren’t looking, she gave her wand a hearty swish and flick, guiding the newly crafter Bishop and Knight over to the glowing column. There was a roar from the crowd as they came to rest upon the illuminated surface. 

 

“And there it is! The Hogwarts Champion Alba Williamson raising the bar!” the announcer gave away.

 

She turned back to her table quickly, expectating complete retaliation as the crowd had blown her cover. 

 

Two spells went whizzing past as Dimitri and Pierre turned on her together in the middle of her attempted transfiguration. The writhing plant was now growing at an alarming pace, tendrils slowly crawling down to the floor, spilling over the edge as she watched, breaking her concentration. The afflicted plant thickened and slowed, partially solidifying while other portions continued to writhe and snap. Assisted by Pierre’s curse, the flame beside her was getting hotter. 

 

In a last ditch effort, she threw the counter jinx at Pierre’s podium to unbind his materials from the smooth surface. The acromantula on his table lurched off the edge towards him, diverting Pierre’s attention just long enough for her to use ‘epoximise’ on Dimitri’s. 

 

“Oo, Roux’s spider has freed itself and is one the loose! Watch out for that- looks like he’s been nicked by the plant! Somehow Williamson has warded off both attackers, who have turned back towards their materials! ”

 

Terrifyingly aware of the fact that things were getting down to the wire, Alba attempted to deal with her own plant problem.

 

She jabbed her wand forward, prodding the mess half organic thing forcefully and then whipped her wand about with a little more finesse. As its shape began shifting, Alba held her breath, hoping it hadn’t been damaged beyond repair. She tried to remember all the details of her little King, the piece that she had kept beside her for weeks, so that the figure she was molding would be just as beautiful, but she also felt the pressure of time. 

 

It took only a few seconds before she had it, her third piece. She didn’t even give a thought to the other Champions as she gave her wand a hearty swish and flick, directing her last piece over to the column as she had the other two. 

 

“This is it!” the announcer’s voice rang out.

 

There was no time to register the curse that intercepted her precious chess piece, but ‘accio’ was off her tongue and through her lips as the crowd gasped. In the middle of its arch off the edge of the platform, the little King zoomed into her waiting hand.

 

“Roux won’t let her win that easy!”

 

Pierre Roux seemed to have dealt with the acromantula, turning his back on his own materials to focus his attention on her, face highlighted with a burning anger. A glance to the other side told her Dimitri was quite happy working on his second piece, the potion morphing into a ball in the air before him. Pierre followed her gaze, anger turning to dread as he watched.

 

Alba grinned at his sweaty, worried face as she shifted around slowly, holding on tightly to the hard chess piece in her hand as she took her first step towards the podium, her other clasped about her wand. Cursing, Pierre turned, going to work on his own pieces once more, unable to watch her take the last few steps while Ivanovic increased his lead. 

 

A bright blaze blinded her as the third piece came to rest on the column, a blue beam shooting up into the air as though it were a searchlight for the heavens. The crowd roared as her pedestal started to vibrate again, this time descending back to the arena floor, leaving the other two competitors battling above her. 





Alba: 8

 

Cerebral Palsy: 4

Chapter 11: He Loves Her So by Chelts-rhj


As Alba’s column came to a grinding halt at ground level, deafening cheers and applause poured in from every angle. An unmistakable trumpeting sound dominated her left. Turning towards the uproar, she saw a group of Hogwart students raising their arms up and down as though trunks, their wands producing the elephant noise with every upwards wave. 
  
Alba couldn’t help but laugh, her own exuberance bubbling out of her mouth of its own volition. Ben had warned her the boys in his dormitory were working on something, and she had to say it was more noticeable than white elephants on everyone’s faces. 
  
Her approach muffled by the roar around them, Nurse Wainscott surprised Alba as the plump woman embraced her from behind, wrapping her up tightly while tears streamed down the woman’s smiling face. Soon James was with them as well, jumping up and down shouting at the top of his lungs . 
  

The announcer was still speaking, but Alba couldn’t find the mental faculties to listen. Whatever was going on up above, she was on the other side. Her father was correct; it was greener.
  
There was an eruption from the spider-clad group of spectators as the second column began to descend, a smiling and waving Ivanovic on top. He wasn’t too proud to nod at her when firmly on the ground. Soon enough, he too was embraced by his Triwizard Team. 
  
It was only a few moments later that Roux joined them, though his sportsmanship was rather lacking when compared to his Durmstrang counterpart. He looked rather ridiculous, his cheeks red from nothing more than temper. He did not greet his Companion with smiles, which even Ivanovic had been able to share with his abysmal partner. 
  
Finally, Alba caught a few words from the announcer again, “Alright ladies and gentleman, the judges are deliberating, we should receive their scores shortly.” 

  “Is that Al?” Alba yelled at James, unsure if her query would be heard over the crowd’s continuing racket. 
  
“Yeah!” he leaned forward to shout in her ear, “But who cares! You won!” 

  “We don’t know that yet,” she reminded him, “Judging!” 
  
As if on cue, Leatrice Zhang stood, pointing an ornate wand at her throat so that her voice was magnified, “The judges are ready!” 
  
There were a few more cheers, one daring Hogwarts students squeezed in an elephant trumpet, but all in all, the crowd quieted down rather quickly. Alba felt as though the entire forest around them was holding its breath in anticipation. 
  
“Hogwarts Triwizard Champion,” her voice rang out through the attentive stadium, “An excellent display of subterfuge and discretion lead to this competitor’s early completion of the task, and each of her final products displayed precise work almost identical to the originals.” She paused, taking her wand away from her throat long enough to send a long, writhing white ribbon high into the air above her. The other judges followed suit.
  
“That’s a lot of big numbers!” James hissed at her through his teeth as Alba attempted to count them quickly, adrenaline making her heart beat faster. 
  
Nine plus eight is seventeen, nine again is six-, eight again! What is that fourtee-thirteen? No, that would be twenty three...she thought furiously before they started on the next contestant. As a final nine formed at the end of the judges table, Leatrice Zhang put the wand back to her throat. 
  
“In first place, with forty three points, Alba Williamson!” Her petite face lit up in with a satisfied grin. 
  
The crowd to Alba’s left erupted in trumpeting, drowning out everyone else’s applause. The corners of her mouth seem determined to split her face in two, her smile was so big. Even as the wretched cameraman started clicking away on his camera, she laughed, pride bubbling out of her chest as elation took over her senses, the rosy tint of victory painting the world a lovely shade of red.  
  
She almost forgot about the other two contestants, but Leatrice Zhang continued without her. 
  
“While he did take extra time to complete his submissions, Triwizard Champion Pierre Roux showed admirable attention to detail with his pieces, in spite of the adversities he contended with,” she explained when the crowd began to murmur, whispering amongst themselves from between the cheering spectators. 
  
While the smile remained intact, she was a bit taken aback by their decision. Alba had quite expected her Beauxbatons competitor to receive last place.
  
After Ivanovic’s scores were revealed, the spider-clad groups were rather quiet. The tone of the crowd had changed considerably. Alba believed that his attitude after completing the task proved that even Roux had expected to lose. Why he didn’t was a mystery to everyone, even those who supported him.
  
“His wand work and ability to perform defensive and offensive spells was impressive, however Champion Dimitri Ivanovic returned one piece with severely lacking precision. His impatience and neglect was a major decision in awarding the Durmstrang Champion third place,” she seemed to regret announcing.
  
Alba had to agree with her sentiment. If there was one person she wished would’ve lost outright, it was Roux. A small part of her hoped that perhaps sportsmanship would be taken into consideration with the next task, though it was unprecedented, and therefore unlikely. 
  
As the gates to the arena floor were opened, the onlooking crowd poured in, bearing down upon the Triwizard Teams, each one trying to get through to congratulate or console their Champion. 
  
Roux was lifted into the air by his compatriots, and while her supporters were decidedly the more rowdy bunch, they were much more content to give her a pat on the shoulder than try and avoid poking someone’s eye out with a crutch as they hoisted her over their heads for a bit of crowd surfing. 
  
Ben found her after a few moments. She knew by the abrupt change in scenery. 

  One minute she was surrounded by a sea of black robes, the next towering above them, a sandy blonde crown appearing in her lap as large hands placed her atop broad shoulders. As always, it took her a bit off guard to be so high, but as the crowd’s roar swelled from beneath her in approval, she lifted her spindly extensions into the air, finally letting out a whooping cheer of her own. 
  
For one blissful moment Alba was queen of the world, Hogwarts Triwizard Champion, first place winner of the first task. Braces, crutches, CP, and all.





Alba woke with a smile on her face the next morning, the sounds of Maude sneaking about with her morning ritual a familiar alarm clock. 
  
Her legs ached and her fingernails had made little cuts in her palms that stung, but she was starting her medication again; she had won. To her own surprise, Alba had managed to do more than survive the competition, and it felt wonderful. 
  
As the morning sun slowly rose above the horizon, Alba took a minute to reflect on how the Mediator’s face beamed from above her as he asked for a detailed account of what had transpired in the ring the night before, occasionally asking other House members for a witness to corroborate her statement. She had never seen him so jovial. 
  
Alba had enjoyed the glowing pride at being the center of attention, the object of admiration and envy. But that was the night before.

  Now, Alba was back in the real world, measuring out doses of her morning medication while Maude finished putting on her shoes.

  “Would you like me to wait for you? You may have an entourage this morning,” her friend asked with a whisper. 
  
Alba’s stomach squirmed a little as she thought about how much more attention she’d likely get now from strangers, not just the Mediator and housemates. She didn’t find encounters with strangers the most pleasant of experiences. Centuries old painting, no problem. School of peers, agony. “That’d be nice, but if you’re hungry, I’ll manage,” she told Maude. 
  
“I’m not in a hurry,” Maude smiled. She had thin lips, Alba noticed for the first time. Pale, but not quite in a sickly way. They matched her quiet personality. 
  
The burn of the Strengthening Solution was a pleasant one, relieving an itch even as it warmed the bottom of her empty stomach. The Pain Philter was the same way, only a little more so. With each breath she could feel the tension ease out of her strengthening muscles, the edge chipped off the block on her shoulder. It would be a little more each morning for the next few months, and then…
  

Alba shook her head, banishing her thoughts of the second task to the shadowy corner of her mind where all the other topics covered in cobwebs stayed: liver function after years on Pain Philter, James being completely in love with Chandra, scoring well on NEWTs while surviving the Triwizard Tournament, dancing in the Yule Ball, among other completely unpleasant things.
  
Alba was brushing her teeth when the other girls in her dormitory started to rise, the sure signs of morning audible from behind their heavy blue curtains as they yawned and stretched. She surveyed her hair with disinterest in a perfectly polished mirror before deciding to chop it all off first chance she had in Hogsmeade. Nurse Wainscott was refusing to do it, and she wasn’t sure who else to ask. 




“It can’t be that close,” Alba frowned at the notice board down in the common room, yanking the parchment off its tack to shove her nose into the print for a closer look. “It can’t be that close, I can’t do it,” she insisted. 
  
Maude giggled from behind, gazing at the picture from over Alba’s shoulder. “I’m not sure you have a choice, dear. It’s a package deal isn’t it?” 
  
“Do you know how many toes I could break trying to dance with-” she got her balance long enough to hold one crutch at an awkward angle between them, “- these? All of them, that’s how many. I can just see it now, ‘one-two-ow-one-two-ow’,”
  
As people came down from the dorms in two’s and three’s, Alba was relieved to find they didn’t feel the need to gather around or let themselves in on the conversation. Most seemed quite content with a simple smile and wave routine that Alba could actually get used to.
  
“You had to work with a venomous tentacula while simultaneously babysitting an acromantula, but the Yule Ball, that you can’t do,” Maude teased. 
  
“Well, technically I said I couldn’t do that either,” Alba admitted, nodding as a fourth year boy beamed at her from by the fire. “More than once. I’m sure you remember.” 
  
“You might’ve mentioned it once or twice,” Maude took the flyer from Alba’s clutched hand so that it tore in two. Without missing a beat, the girl took her wand out and repaired it. “Do you think anyone will ask me? I don’t think I would really want to go with a boy…” 
  
“Why not?” Alba asked her timid friend, chewing on the inside of her lip. The prospect had been nagging at her as well. What if no one asked her to the dance and she had to go alone? A horrible image of her turning around in circles in time with the other two couples as everyone laughed flashed through her head. “Do you think they’d make me dance if I don’t have a date?” 
  
“I hear Mcgonagall is a stickler for the first dance. Real traditional about it,” Maude teased. “Besides, you’ll have to beat the boys off with a stick, you’re going to be on everyone’s mind after yesterday’s performance. Come on, let’s go, I’m hungry.”
  
Maude was correct in her assumption. Excitement from the previous day had not lost much momentum overnight. As they made their way through the winding corridors to the Great Hall for breakfast, several of the students they passed looked as though they had not yet been to sleep, exhaustion giving them false bursts of energy so that one minute they looked as though dead, and the next they were talking too fast to understand. One fifth year hufflepuff tried to trumpet at her, but got the incantation wrong and ended up letting off an enormous lion’s roar as his ‘trunk’ came up. He blushed profusely, but Alba and Maude laughed. 
  
“Thanks,” Alba told him. “I appreciate it all the same.” 
  
There was another outburst of trumpeting during breakfast when the owl post came. Alba’s victory had made the front page, and while she had rather disliked the cameraman, he had taken a wonderful picture. 
  
He’d gotten her shout of victory, right after Ben had lifted her up. Under the bold caption declaring her victor was the one shot of her unbridled joy. Alba couldn’t wait to see how it looked in her mother’s scrapbook. She was sure to cut it out and keep it. 

 




The first day back in classes was awkward. Alba had been rather shocked to see James practically sprawled across Chandra’s table as she entered the Potions room, his flirty face in full bloom as he no doubt tried to charm the pants off his ex. 
  
It wasn’t until Chandra gave him swift peck on the cheek that her mouth fell open in disbelief. As the chair next to his lady was taken, James removed his upper body from the wooden top and practically strutted his way towards Alba’s usual table as the bell rang. She was sure to shut her mouth before taking the seat next to his. 

Apparently the good cheer from her victory had spread far indeed. The results were bittersweet. 
  
Alba, having never been in one relationship, much less a repeat relationship, couldn’t understand why they had to go through ‘the honeymoon stage’ every time they spent even a few hours upset with each other. Seemed a bit redundant as they knew it was a phase that would wear off, making room for the arguments and conflict that lied waiting underneath all the superfluous action and useless touching. Though if she was being honest, it was really just the touching that bothered her.
  
The lesson demanded attention, though they weren’t brewing today. Instructions and theories, including several characters in greek, were covering the blackboard. Cures for a custom poison were more tricky than true and tried antidotes. Much like mixing her own medications without advice, the failure to consider magical ingredients secondary and tertiary effects could be fatal. The morbid material didn’t seem to phase Chandra or James, who still found time to float little hearts and kisses made of lipstick back and forth to each other while Pimbly’s back was turned. 
  
Herbology was a relief from the newly reunited, twittering couple, though another relationship dynamic change had Alba distracted throughout her second class as well. 
  
Over the last few weeks, Alba had become accustomed to the constant stream of arguing from two of the dozen or so Durmstrang students to share her Herbology period. Vesela and Ivanovic never failed to bicker, though as they spoke in clipped, accented words only their classmates could understand, the topics were hard to discern. 
  
The stoney silence they maintained throughout the entire period was even louder than their heated discussions had been. It wasn’t just the Triwizard Team either, the entire Durmstrang population seemed a bit wounded at their loss, and she could understand why. 
  
There had been a decrease in usage of their spider emblem, and while some of the converted student body seemed to be sporting the green stallion, Alba’s white elephant was a more prominent figure on the black robes of Hogwarts students than previously, and the halls were often interrupted in trumpeting sounds as she passed. 
  
Alba usually wasn’t the sentimental type, but she did feel for him. Dimitri had performed well, on and off the field, and now he was living what she had been afraid of all along. 
  
Not particularly eager to catch up with James and his other half for lunch, Alba waited patiently after class for the plaited haired troll to leave before trying to approach her fellow competitor. Vesela just tended to make things more… aggressive.
  
“Hey, what’s up?” Alba finally offered lamely, planting her crutches firmly into the ground for stability as she made her way towards Ivanovic’s tall, thin figure.
  
He seemed a little taken aback at first, but an intrigued grin seemed to creep to the corner of his mouth. 
  
“Oh, just preparing for lunch. If I become too found of these English foods, I may be too heavy for my broom!” he smiled, though it didn’t quite reach his eyes. 
  
Humor often became a defensive reflex for witty boys. Alba had noticed the same tendency in Ben. 
  
“I doubt that. Have you seen how big some of those beaters get? I can’t imagine being in charge of all that girth. I have a hard enough time as it is,” she tried to follow his lead with the humor, but was afraid she was coming off wrong. “Anyway, haven’t really had the chance to have a proper conversation since that day in the owlery. Are you doing well your classes?” 
  
“I am getting a long. The english translates oddly sometimes, but Professor Krum is alvays happy to help, should anyone have questions.” 
  
Small talk was never her strong suit, so Alba threw caution to the wind and let the word vomit take over. “I hope no one is being mean to you. I mean, this whole time everyone thought I would be rubbish, and they weren’t exactly supportive of my entering a tournament, what with my complications. I just want you to know that I think you did a brilliant job out there, and if everyone wasn’t constantly underestimating me, myself included, I would’ve been in exactly your position. Cutting corners just to get the job done.” 
  
The greenhouse had emptied rather quickly as students hurried up the lawn to eat, but Ivanovic still looked around cautiously before answering. 
  
“I’m not sure that you would’ve had the same problem I did,” he finally told her heavily. “I didn’t cut corners, as you say. I turned in the flawed piece first, not because I was under any pressure.” 
  
Alba frowned, drawing her brows together in confusion. 
  
“I could do no better,” he explained. “Vesela and I don’t exactly spend a lot of time together. I hadn’t even touched her piece, much less knew the exact details of its dimensions and patterns. Our collaborations were more like business deals. We separated to brainstorm, and had regular meetings to exchange ideas, but we have no camaraderie. You won because your team is solid, a functioning unit that shares all available information. I lost because mine is dysfunctional, and it is not her fault or mine, but ours together.” This time when he smiled, the corners of his eyes wrinkled, just a little. “It is a weakness that I am rectifying slowly, so do not think you will capitolize on it in the upcoming events, Miss Williamson,” he teased, pointing a finger at her as he squinted his eyes comically, slinging a packed book bag over his shoulder. “I’ve got my eye on you.”
  
“Oh, do you now? Finally got your attention, have I?” she played along, following him out. 
  
“After that trick you pulled in the arena? I think you’ve got everyone’s attention, and most likely Roux’s dislike.” 
  
“I wish I could’ve seen the look on his face when I finished,” Alba sighed. 
  
“Oh I saw, and let me tell you-” Ivanovic started, all too happy to divulge exactly what had transpired after she had descended back down to the arena floor.
  
They reached the doors to the Great Hall before the smiles died from their lips.
  
“Will you be going to the dance with Potter?” Ivanovic asked, holding the large oak door open for her. 
  
A picture of James snogging Chandra before Potions flashed before her eyes. “No,” she said firmly. “I’m pretty certain he has other plans.” 
  
“Ah. Will you be bringing the sweet one? Ah… honey something. Benjamin?” 
  
“Oh, Ben?” she asked, surprised she hadn’t thought of it before. “I’m not really certain. Why do you ask?” 

  “Well, I’m supposed to be bringing Vesela. I had hoped, if you were going with your Companion, we could trade.” The disappointment in his voice was obvious. 
  
“Why don’t you two like each other?” Alba asked, ignoring how nosey it was. 
  
“Family differences, I guess you could say,” he nodded and gave her a stiff smile, glancing at Maude as she approached.
  
Unfortunately, Alba wasn’t the kind to beat around bushes. “Is she prejudice or something?” 
  
Maude, usually so quiet, burst out laughing, “I’m so sorry, Ivanovic, Alba is aware of social custom, she just chooses to ignore it occasionally. Come on! Don’t badger him,” Maude jerked her head, gesturing towards the Tables that waited for them within. 
  
They left Dimitri standing in the doorway, looking entirely ruffled by the ordeal. 
  
“He’s a big boy, you know, it wasn’t like I was pulling  his ear or anything,” Alba grumbled on her way to the Ravenclaw table.
  
“You asked him a direct question, which he avoided. If you want to keep him on your list of ‘allies’ I wouldn’t push him about things he doesn’t want  to talk about,” Maude said an all too reasonably tone of voice.  
  
Understanding dawned on Alba like the ringing of a gong, “Ooh, you were being tactical! Look at you. You know technically, that’s my Companion’s job. You’re cheating,” she teased. 
  
“Well,” they glanced at where James sat with Chandra beside him, ogling at her long, curled hair as she ran her fingers through it and fed him spoonfuls of soup, “he’s currently occupied. Besides, watching you fail at social norms is a full time job. We work in split shifts.” 
  
They’d finally reached the Ravenclaw table. Alba was happy to take a seat and shrink her crutches to a more convenient size. 

  “I think I’ve decided not to go,” Maude said a few moments later from across the table as she reached for a sandwich.
  
“To the ball?” Alba clarified, but someone interrupted from behind.
  
“Alva Villamson?” one of the Durmstrang boys asked in a thick accent. “My name is Cory Burdgdorf. I vanted to tell you congratulations on a great performance in the task. I vas hopping per’aps you would come to the Yule Vall with me?”  

Alba gasped as Maude did, her mind turning over to find the right words as it spluttered with disbelief.
  
“Oh, ah… well, Cory? Was it? I uh-” 
  
An all too familiar deep voice came up with a solution for her, “What she means is, thank you for the congratulations Burgdorf, but she already has a date.” 
  
Alba was both furious and relieved at Ben’s intrusion. Furious because she knew just who he would have her bring, and relieved because the young man in front of her seemed to take the news well. 
  
“Ah, then I am too late! Thank you for your time, Champion,” and he was gone up the room and out the door, apparently having just finished eating.
  
Alba turned on Ben, “Who exactly am I going with?” she demanded of him. “Because I’m pretty sure that was my first proposal.”
  
“Not sure about that, I’ve asked you to ‘go with me’ almost sixty times now, just never to anywhere specific. So I’m taking you. It’s like dibs.” He took a seat next to Maude who paused while taking her first bite, eyes darting between the two of them as Alba lost her patience.
  
“Oh, well, nice talk. Glad we had it. Tell me, was I excited when you asked or did it take some convincing? I seem to have no memory of this discussion.” Her stomach gave out a growl, but she wasn’t ready to eat yet. Maude put her sandwich down, most likely looking for an escape route. 
  
“I know that James would be your first choice, but he and Chandra made up yesterday. They were snogging all over the place, surprised you missed it.” 
  
At that, Maude stood quite suddenly, vacating the area to avoid overhearing any more of the tense conversation. 
  
“Of course I saw, and I’m happy for them,” she lied to him. Her chest felt like there was a crater in it, but Ben was on a roll and didn’t seem ready to lose momentum.
  
“And yeah, it might’ve been rude for me to lie to the prospective suitor, but I was here first. I know your first, last, and middle name, Alba Irene Williamson. I know that you aren’t going to want to dance and that you’ll probably find a way to sneak more of your potions than you should to try and gain a little more stability for the night, since you’ve probably been having nightmares of falling during the opening dance since your name popped out of that oversized cup.” 
  
He paused long enough to let a yawning third year pass before continuing the onslaught. “I know better than to think I’m going to ‘get lucky’ if I try to slip firewhiskey into your punch, because it just makes you mean. I know that you don’t even own a pair of dress robes yet, because you never planned on going, and if you had your way you’d show up for the beginning and duck out before anyone could notice.” His chest heaved as though he’d ran all the way from the common room. “Just let me help make your night fun, please? Haven’t I been a good enough friend for you to allow me that?” 
  
Alba had no retort. She hated when his tone was genuine and his logic sound.
  
He shook his head, “What are you so afraid of?”
  
Trying to ignore the metallic taste coming from the bottom lip between her teeth, Alba considered his proposition while continuing to chew on it. Everything he said was true. Even down to the not having dress robes (which she would have to ask her mother for soon). 
  
As Ben stood waiting for an answer, Alba couldn’t help but glance over to where the happy couple sat. She noticed that James’s tie was wrapped in her hair like a gold stripped headband. 
  
James was always going to go with Chandra. They were bound to each other, sustained by a gravitational pull that put even the moon to shame. Alba wasn't so stubborn as to think there was no one for her but James. It was simply an attraction stemming from a long time friendship and her own self-imposed isolation from the opposite gender. 
  
She was going to have to watch them be completely perfect and happy with each other all night. She could do it alone, or she could do it with someone she liked. 
  
“Ok Honeypucker. But we’re going to have to practice dancing or I’ll make a fool of myself,” she told him, ripping her eyes away from the pair.
  
“I wouldn’t have it any other way,” his mischievous grin wasn’t contagious.
  
“I really thought they were done for good this time,” Ben said in a more normal tone. “After what she did and everything.” 
  
Alba bit her tongue, quite literally, to keep the question from spilling out of her mouth, refusing to let emotion control her response. 
  
“Not sure what you mean,” she replied grabbing her glass and filling it with a bit of pumpkin juice. A statement was more innocent than a question.
  
Her plan backfired when he didn’t divulge further information. 
  
A number of Ben’s classman entered the great hall, lifting their hands and letting of their trumpeting as they caught sight of her. Ben gave a great smile, mimicking the gesture so that soon the entire Hall erupted like a heard was stampeding through. Before it began to petter off, he took her arm and raised it high in the air.
  
She supposed that was one of things that made Ben a good friend. He really did just want to have fun. Perhaps the Yule Ball won’t be so bad… Alba thought as she took a small traingular cut of sandwich, beside her, Ben had already piled a mound of food onto his plate. 
  
A few of his patriotic friends began to call him over before the first bite passed through his lips. She could see the decision on whether to go or stay weighing in his mind.
  
“So will you really go with me, please, Alba? To the Yule Ball, I mean,” he said almost under his breath. “I mean… If you really want to go with someone else, by all means. I really just didn’t want to be beaten by a guy who refers to you as ‘Champion’.” He made a disgruntled face that pulled his eyebrows together, gesturing to his friends to wait with a shooing motion. 
  
“Well, you were right,” she admitted to him. “It would be more fun to go with you than some stranger. And I won’t feel awkward practising for the first and ONLY dance I’ll be in that night with you, as I’ve ridden on your shoulders at your… I don’t even know what to call that, whim? under your kidnapping? Ooh, Abduction!” 

  He laughed deeply, standing and taking a few steps back towards his ever impatient roommates. 
  
“Wonderful. Thank you, and you know,” he gave her a boyish grin and in true Benjamin Honeypucker style, ruined the moment, “I am rather dashing. Perhaps everyone will be too fascinated with me to notice your kneehighs and tennis shoes.” 
  
She frowned, adding another mental note to her Hogsmeade to-do list:

 

Hair Cut

Dress Robes

Fancy Shoes

 

Wonderful. 

 




“You were brilliant!” Nurse Wainscott trilled again as she watched Alba stretch out the last of her exercises. 
  
“Thank you,” Alba told her once more, trying to not sound too annoyed. 
  
“Have you any idea who you’ll be going to the Yule Ball with?” the older woman asked, in a suspiciously casual tone Alba knew was backed by a fierce hunger for knowledge. It was almost like she knew already. 
  
“Yes,” Alba admitted, eying the paintings around them suspiciously. It wouldn’t be the first time the Nurse had set them on her. 

  Nurse Wainscott bustled about excitedly, returning with a cold glass of water. “So I would really appreciate it if you could cut my hair,” Alba reminded her. giving her a rather dirty look as she accepted the drink. “I don’t want it looking shabby for the Ball.” 
  
Nurse Wainscott frowned, but remained silent and gestured to the glass in Alba’s hand. 
  
With a great sigh, Alba finished the whole thing in two large swallows. “There,” she put the cup down on the table. “Now will you give me a haircut?” 
  
Nurse Wainscott giggled a little, a blush turning her plump cheeks a soft shade of pink. “Now, don’t be mad Alba, dear,” she said a little slowly. 
  
Immediately, Alba’s scalp began to itch, and she thrust her hands into her hair to try and scratch, but the mess was practically shooting out of her head, growing at an alarming rate even as she tried to stem the flow of brown locks. 
  
“No, no, no, no, no…” Alba said, jumping down from the cot and making her way over to a mirror. By the time she managed to get to it without her crutches, the wavy hair had fallen past her shoulders, and was slowing as the ends reached her waist with a gentle curl. 
  
Nurse Wainscott spoke quickly and quietly. “I promise Alba, I’ll do it up for you every day until the Ball, and then I’ll cut it. “You can pretend all you want that you like it short,” she practically whispered, “But I was there, and I watched you cry as we cut it off because you didn’t want to ask for help anymore.”
  
A tear fell down her powdered, wrinkled face. “Now it might’ve been rude, and I could get into a bit of trouble if you decide to turn me into the headmistress, but the Yule Ball is a day for you, Alba. And I want you to look back on these pictures and remember how good it felt to be you that night. I want you to be proud of the way you look, all of you. Ok?” 
  
A tear fell from Alba’s cheek to rest among the new glimmering strands of hair now falling in a cascade about her shoulders. It was beautiful, her hair was. And the Nurse was right, she had loved it long and down. But independence had won out over vanity in the long run, and she had asked the nurse to cut it off beginning of her second year, unable to stand walking downstairs every morning for the good Nurse to brush and braid it.
  
“Ok,” Alba finally replied, gathering her bag and leaving without words, but only after a very long hug. 
 

Chapter 12: I Wasn't Born for the Rose and Pearl by Chelts-rhj

Alba awoke the next morning with one bleary eye cracking open to watch the fog of her breath rise up to the canopy four poster. The chill seeped into every crack and crevice of the thick blanket wrapped around her, tightening her calves in a particularly achy manner. Normally she would’ve charmed the blanket warmer and drifted off back to sleep, but such wasn’t her luck today. Nurse Wainscott had decided otherwise. 

Alba sat up, taking in a sharp breath as the sheet dropped from her shoulders. 

“Alba?” Maude asked from behind the closed curtains on her left, much more sleepy than usual. 

“Yes?” Alba hissed back. 

“What the hell are you doing up?” Maybe Maude wasn’t that much a morning person after all, Alba wondered. 

“I have to go see Nurse Wainscott before breakfast.” 

“To do your hair?” Maude inquired further. 

Alba didn’t want to talk about it. Surrounded by darkness, sheltered by the drawn curtains, she brought her abnormal hands to the long locks falling down her shoulders, running the few fingers she could through it while she had the chance. Nurse Wainscott would brush it, place it in a knot high on her head, and fasten her hat securely on top so that no one could tell exactly how long it was. Well, no one but the people who saw her go down the stairs every morning for the next week. And her roommates. 

“Yes,” she responded despondently. 

Maude was quiet, but only for a few moments. “Is it as long as it used to be?” she asked, reminding Alba that Maude, and everyone else in the tower, remembered the younger, more dependent version of her too. 

“Longer,” Alba couldn’t help but whisper back. 

“Do you want me to put it up?” Maude asked her. 

“Can I go back to sleep?” Alba asked, hoping the tower would warm quickly once the sun breached the horizon. 

“I’ll make sure to wake you up in time,” Maude promised. 


About an hour later, Alba was sitting, not much warmer, on Maude’s bed, surprised at how deftly Maude’s hands moved through her strange new hair. Her rhythm was sure and hypnotic, and if she wasn’t so anxious about the whole ordeal, she may have drifted off again. Maude got halfway through a french braid before Alba remembered to say, “A bun please! I’m so sorry, but could you put it in a bun?” 

Her friend had just smiled at her in the mirror, once again running her fingers through the chestnut brown waves so that the woven strands tumbled down her back again. 

“My mum taught me to braid hair when I was little. My grandmum has long, beautiful silver hair, but her arms get too tired to french braid it. When I’m home for summer she shows me all the new fashion models and how they braid their hair. We practised…” 

It gave Alba a little relief to hear that Maude enjoyed the activity. Hopefully she wouldn’t mind lending her hands a few more times before the Ball. 

“There you go,” Maude finally said, taking a step back as Alba squinted into the mirror. It certainly wasn’t quite the high and tight that Nurse Wainscott had perfected, but the slightly messy puff was cute and still fit under her hat so that she didn’t feel silly about suddenly having two more feet of hair.

Of course, Ben wouldn’t be deterred so easily. “Did you grow your hair out? How long?” Maude made a not-so-discreet noise to shut him up, but the damage was done. Ben wasn’t one for being bashful. “Should I grow a beard? We can get matching braids or something for the ball.” 

He was always good for a laugh. “Please don’t,” Alba managed after a bit of giggling. “ We’d look ridiculous. What do your robes look like? Mum should be sending me some this morning, she was to visit Diagon Alley yesterday.” The whole ordeal was terrifying; at least the TO DO list helped her attack the issues in a logical way. The main priority currently was wardrobe. A persistent nemesis. Maude held the heavy door open as the trio headed downstairs for breakfast.

Ben went in first, waiting for them both on the first step. “They’re your standard dress robes. Black and white. Not much fuss. Little tight about the neck, I’ll have to try and make it loosen a bit or I won’t be able to dance long.” 

“I’m only dancing the one time,” Alba asserted firmly, planting her crutches firmly on the landing and preparing herself for the descent.

“Well that’s fine and dandy, but I like a little swing in my party, thank you ma’am,” he winked at her as she took his hand, Maude bringing up the rear. 

“Pretty sure Mum was looking for a white dress, so I’m glad your robes aren’t…” she paused to concentrate on the last step in the staircase, “loud or anything. I’m going for simple.”

Alba found her heart beating a little faster as she tore off the plain packing paper from the parcel her mother’s owl delivered once they’d finally arrived at the great hall for breakfast. She pulled off the lid without hesitation, picking up the note and tearing it open as she eyed the beautiful white satin material. 

 

I’m sorry Alba,

This was the only style they had left. I wish I would’ve been able to make it out there sooner. I hope you have a wonderful night. 

All the love, Mum. 


 

“What’s she sorry for?” James asked suddenly, taking a large bite of apple as he bent over her shoulder, sleep once again poking out of the corner of his eye. 

“Not sure yet…” Alba mumbled, letting him take the letter from her as she pulled out the dress. It seemed perfectly fine. Not the least bit sheer, a good length. It was twisted in a knot of sorts on one side so that the material was gathered at the waist and draped down-

She saw it. The “I’m sorry” her mother was talking about, the ‘only style they had left’. It was cut short in front, so that it fell just below the knees in an arc that trailed to the ground in the back. Alba supposed it would be beautiful on the right girl. On a girl like Chandra, or Maude even, it would be the perfect blend of flirty and classy. However, for Alba, it was only the perfect height to show off all her foot equipment; braces, knee highs, tennis shoes and all. And that dumb photographer Mrs. Potter worked with was bound to take pictures of it all, then spread them across the front page of the paper for every to gawk and wonder at.

Alba let the shining beautiful material fall through her fingers back into its box, crumpled in a heap. James and Ben were bickering over the note, but there was pressure on her chest making it hard to breath or listen. She wanted nothing more than to go to the hospital wing, lose herself in the counts and repetitions of her exercises until the Yule Ball was just a distant imagining again. 

“It’s too short,” she finally told James, leaving the dress on the table. “She couldn’t find anything longer. I’m going to see Nurse Wainscott, not hungry.” 

Her friends knew her well enough not to follow. Alba almost hoped Maude would leave the almost perfect dress for the house elves to take care of, but either way it was sure to be waiting for her in the dorm tonight, just as mockingly beautiful as her new hair. 

Nurse Wainscott attempted to be as optimistic as ever, thoroughly ruining her pity party of solitude. “Well, it’s not like everyone doesn’t already know, dear. What’re you trying to hide with a longer hem anyway?”

Alba finished counting the repetition of fifteen before responding, taking the time to stretch out her leg a bit before continuing with the other side. Calf exercises were the worst. “Well, I’d rather have everyone staring at my head wondering ‘where’d all that hair come from’ than at my legs thinking, ‘wow look at how messed up that shi-’.” 

“Alba!” Nurse Wainscott cut her off with a sharp look. “I hate to be rude, but no one cares about how ‘messed up’ your legs are more than you.”

Alba just frowned, unable to formulate an appropriate response. There was a twinge starting in her knee that may mean shin splints later. 

“I think that’s enough for now; don’t want to strain yourself. I’ll see you after dinner,” Nurse Wainscott said sadly, and Alba hated the disappointment in the good woman’s eyes as she left. 

Alba failed to find an outlet for her frustrations in her morning classes. All of her professors seemed content to do reviews and the such, and it was apparent why. After years of building, Hogwarts was finally host to the Yule Ball again, and all of her classmates- except Maude- were buzzing with excitement, their heads much too occupied to learn anything new. 

Alba found that she was more and more daunted by the prospect of the ‘first dance’ than anything else. Her mind churned over the complications the ordeal presented, failing at every turn to find a solution. 

By the end of the day, she was desperate indeed. Only six more days until the Ball, and she hadn’t the right shoes, hadn’t practised with her partner, and hated her dress. Well, maybe not hated it, it just represented the very image she was never able to achieve. 

“More precious than gold, but cannot be bought; Can never be sold, only earned if it’s sought; If it is broken it can still be mended; At birth it can’t start nor by death is it ended,” the eagle knocker demanded of her. 

She blinked at it a few times, why not an easy one tonight, like ‘I have only one silver eye that cannot see’ or something… I’d say love, but it can start at birth, as parents love their children from the very start… still…

“It’s not… love?” Alba decided to say, if rather uncertainly. The eagle didn’t respond. “So… how about… friendship?” 

Apparently the knocker wasn’t in the mood for praise; the door opened in silence. 




The day before the Yule Ball, Alba was no more hopeful about her upcoming dance than she had been at the beginning of the week. Not even dance lessons with Ben could cheer her up. 

She had gone to therapy after their third practise disheartened, talked very little, and eventually made her way back to the common room in a daze, not even stopping by her favorite portraits on the way. 

In order to distract herself from the panic slowly rising through her chest, she filtered her thoughts to random, unimportant things. The riddle the eagle posed was easy, and she made it back into bed without a fuss. 

Most of the girls in her year were still up and about when she entered the dormitory. Wilhelmina had very sparkly maroon dress robes, which she was twirling about in so that little flecks of candlelight danced around the walls with her. The other girls had blue dresses in varying shades, one with silver trim, one with the traditional Ravenclaw bronze, and the other accented with a deep green color. Perhaps her date was Slytherin.

Alba left hers crumpled in the box on top of the trunk at the foot of her bed. She didn’t take it out and look at it. Nor did she fawn over the others’ clothes. 

“Could you help me take my hair down?” She quietly asked Maude, no hope of being able to wait until the others were asleep. They would be up all night with talk of the Ball. 

Maude made quick work of it, and Alba was in bed with her head on the pillow before anyone could ask, “Are you excited about tomorrow?”

Her dreams were plagued with nightmares, the most terrifying of which involved Ben slowly enlarging throughout the first dance until he was taller than grawp and then stepped on the hem of her dress so that it ripped, showing everyone her choice of  underwear: pink long johns. After waking up a bit out of breath, it was a relief to remember she didn’t actually own a pair of pink long johns anyway. 

James floated throughout her dreams as well, but she rubbed the memory of him away with the sleep in her eyes as the sun rose the next morning. 

The inevitable day had arrived. The Yule Ball was upon her. 

Or at least, it would be after a few hours. Though, judging by the state of the dorm when she finally pulled back the curtain, Alba’s dorm mates couldn’t get ready fast enough. 

Almost every bed was covered in make-up, hair potions, shoes, stockings, dresses, undergarments, and all sorts of contraptions she had no idea how to use. Three girls were crowded around the mirror, all half done up with powders and the like, while Maude was in the shower from the sounds of it. 

“Good morning Alba! Ready for your big day?” Genevieve asked, taking some brightly colored contraptions out of her hair. Alba was surprised to find they had turned her usually straight strands into corkscrew curls overnight. Interesting. 

“Mmmm,” she responded, “Nice hair.” The girl beamed back at her, the question successfully dodged. 

Alba had halfway decided to crawl back into bed, therapy be damned, before she remembered that the potions would be particularly useful; therefore a trip to Nurse Wainscott couldn’t be skipped, and in order for potions to happen, breakfast had to happen. 

She’d need to get ready for the day too, no matter how scary it was.

 




The day went much better than expected, as far as her ability to procrastinate was concerned. By the time lunch was done, she had managed to revisit all of her favorite paintings, hide from Ben in her secret spot to avoid hurting his feelings by not being excited, and sent a letter to her mother thanking her for the dress. She was almost certain it came across as sincere. 

All of Alba’s hard earned composure evaporated as she crossed the threshold to Ravenclaw Tower after lunch. 

Chandra, of all people, was sitting in the Common Room, her deep red nails drumming on a side table adjacent to her arm chair of choice. She stood as Alba walked in, pulling her straightening her skirt nervously as she did so. 

“What are you doing here,” Alba asked nervously. 

“Well,” Chandra continued to fiddle with her clothes and the bag slung across one shoulder, “James was telling me about a few of your wardrobe issues and I really think I can help,” she explained in a rather meek voice. “I know we don’t always get along, but…” she finally met Alba’s eyes, “this really is my thing you know.” 

Alba was unsure of what the plan was. “Can you make my dress longer, but only in the front?” She asked, too suspicious for hope. 

“No, I can make you look good in the dress you already have. I am ninety five percent sure.” 

Alba was surprised by the percentage. It seemed much more official than an, ‘I am pretty sure’ and more honest than a guarantee. 

“How?”

The grin in response was slightly unsettling, but then, Alba supposed most adventures were a little unsettling in the beginning. 

The secrecy was surprising. Chandra insisted on moving all the equipment to the Prefects bathroom, which she had been allowed access to via James for the special occasion. She began to talk more and more as they neared the place, responses mostly unnecessary. 

Two hours later, Alba stared at herself in the mirror, marveling at how wonderful her hair looked. The process had been not entirely bad, though a bit uncomfortable at times. While she had been rather quiet throughout the ordeal, she had requested light make-up and natural tones, and Chandra had done quite a beautiful job at it, though Alba was certainly no expert. 

After some coaxing, Chandra had convinced Alba that some silver shiny stuff around her eyes and a little on her cheeks would be nice, bring out the white dress and whatnot. She liked the effect it had. 

Her favorite part was the hair, most certainly. It had taken time to get used to seeing it down, but Chandra wanted to leave it natural, with the slight curls framing Alba’s face nicely without any sponges, heat, or potions. Chandra had insisted on braiding it, though not in any fashion Alba had seen before. Dozens of tiny braids criss crossed the back of her head so that a veil of sorts was draped over the locks in various places, pinned and secured with a little magic, it reminded Alba of something you’d see on a fairy bride out of some children’s book. 

“What do you think?” Chandra asked, pinning the last knotted strand into place. 

“I love it,” Alba told her honestly, “but my dress-”

“Yes, yes, that’s coming, but it’s the boring part. Do you want me to change anything?” Chandra insisted. 

“No, it’s perfect,” she reiterated, eager to get on with ‘the boring part’ that was causing her so much anxiety. 

“That’s what I like to hear, now you need to pick some shoes,” Chandra picked up her bag from where it lay on the counter and began rummaging around in depths only possibly with extension charms. 

“I have shoes-”

“Those are flats. This is the Yule Ball. Pick a pair, I’ll fix it if they aren’t the right size, do it for my sisters all the time.” Chandra began taking out pairs of high heels one by one and laying them on the counter.

“I don’t know if I can do heels and braces,” Alba insisted, blanching at the thought of trying to dance in strappy stilettos. 

“Find a pair you can walk in, and that can fit with your braces. Please, Alba. Just trust me, and forgive me, but the finale is the best part. I can’t wait to see the look on your face!” Chandra was positively beaming, and Alba had to admit it was a little fun to dream. 

“Those,” she said, picking a pair of wedges that seemed rather stable. “I think they’ll fit.” They didn’t. But with a few swishes of her wand, Chandra molded the curvy shoes around Alba’s braces for a snug fit, even if the pale blue plastic and white velcro clashed horribly with the whole thing. 

“Alright, alright, now the dress!” Chandra was practically squealing a few minutes later when all straps, buckles, and binds were done up tight. 

Just in time, Alba was standing with her eyes closed in front of the mirror, holding her breath while Chandra prepared her big finale. 

“Open!” She cried. 

Alba opened her eyes and gasped, catching sight of herself in the full length mirror. Her hair caught her attention first, the long locks resting nicely against the smooth fabric of her dress. She squinted in confusion, staring at her legs in the mirror. 

She had ankle braces on, she knew it. They had strapped them in under the wedges, and she could feel them metal spokes pressing gently into the sides of her legs. She just couldn’t see them. 

“Viola!” Chandra said triumphantly, walking around behind Alba as though she were a finished painting. “I disillusioned them,” she explained. “Simple idea, tricky to learn, but effective. I do it to my bras all the time. Haven’t quite got the hang of entire people, but I’m sure it’ll come with practise. Mum says…”

Alba was speechless for a several minutes, trying to keep tears from making tracks through her fresh powder. When she finally found words, all she could say was, “Thank you.” 





“Stop looking at me like that,” she hissed to Ben, who was once again staring intently at her from his post at her side. 

“No,” he refused, bending over to whisper in her ear, “you look too damn good for me to miss a minute of it.” 

Alba blushed a bit, turning her head to make sure the other Champions didn’t hear him. From the thumbs up that James flashed her from behind, she was guessing he and Chandra hadn’t heard. 

The moment she had been dreading was finally upon her, and Alba couldn’t find the time to worry about it anymore. She was ecstatic. With the unlikely combo of Nurse Wainscott’s hair potion and Chandra’s disillusionment, Alba felt picture perfect. Besides, it was Ben’s job to remember how the dance went. She was just following. 

Ben’s head finally turned from Alba as the double doors opened, music pouring from the Great Hall. 

“You doing ok?” He asked her, sweat breaking out on the palm of his hand. 

“Yep. You?” 

“I’m never going to forget tonight,” he replied before they followed Dimitri out onto the dancefloor. 

One two three, one two three… Alba intoned, trying to keep time with the music while balancing on her borrowed shoes. “It’s the hair isn’t it?” She asked him, confident there were now enough couples twirling around in colorful dress robes to not notice if they were out of time a little bit. Just a few more measures and-

“You’re beautiful, with or without. Just more… obviously so, I suppose.” 

Alba laughed, no longer attempting to keep up with the waltz as more couples poured onto the dance floor. She caught sight of Chandra gazing up at James. She had somehow found enough time to get ready herself after helping Alba all afternoon. Huh, she thought, the lovely lady isn’t so bad…

“Thank you Benjamin.”

“Are you being sarcastic? Because usually my full name is reserved for the occasions when I’m in trouble for something.” 

“No, I’m trying to be nice. Thank you for faux-asking me to the Yule Ball.” 

“Ah, you’re welcome!” He replied enthusiastically, giving her hand a little squeeze before pulling out a chair for her. “Thank you for accepting. I was half expecting you would go to Mcgonagall saying you couldn’t dance and she probably would’ve let you off since we have a perfectly good Companion.” 

“Damn it, Honeypucker, I asked your opinion, and you said it wouldn’t work!” 

“Bahahaha!” He exploded with laughter. “I’ve been waiting for you to try it this entire time, and then I’d be out a date. And you’d be short one very fine dress, my lady. Oh, and a head of hair.” 

“Whatever, Maude would’ve gone with you,” she said certainly, not at all regretting her misjudgement in the slightest. 

“But would I have gone with Maude?” Ben asked hiking a dirty blonde eyebrow to ridiculous heights while stroking his chin. 

Alba laughed, accepted his offer to get a glass of punch, and surveyed the crowd. She was very happy to be herself in that moment. 

When the photographer came around, as was inevitable, she stood tall next Ben, holding his hand for a little help, and smiled widely for the camera, thinking of how good it would look on her mother’s mantle. All with a little help from her friends. 

As the hours past, Alba forgot about if people were wondering about her hair, or if the disillusionment charm had begun to wear off her footwear. She was engaged in conversations with students from across the world, many of them eager to sit and talk with her about nothing in particular. Her friends danced, sang obnoxiously when Newton’s Newts came on stage, and spent the entire time smiling, their good cheer more infectious than any pox. 

A little past midnight, she tugged on Ben’s shirt, “I’m about ready to head up.”

“Alright, let me grab my coat,” he yelled over the bass solo. 

“It’s alright if you want to stay!” 

He gave her a dirty look that roughly translated to ‘you’re raving mad’, and dashed off to find his coat as she stood, waving to James from across the room and motioning upwards to let him know she was off. He waved heartily, and Chandra turned, giving her a great smile and a little wave of her own. 

“Ready then?” Ben asked, nodding to the couple as she took his offered hand. “Any way you’ll just let me carry you all the way up? I saw you start rubbing your calves two hours ago.” 

“Keep clucking like that, and you really will turn into a mother hen.” 

His deep chuckle was satisfying. They bantered well together. And she wouldn’t protest too much if he picked her up towards the end. But he only did that when he wanted to hold her. 

The corner of Alba's mouthed sagged into a frown as she realized exactly how long it had been.

End Notes:

So this is the last of what I have pre-written. I haven't touched this story in... 2 years! YIKES!! It's about time. I haven't abandoned it, just had a baby and moved and whatnot. PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE leave me reviews. Even if it's just yelling at the characters (I do that a lot) I would appreciate it. Feedback is about the only 'thanks' we get for posting things like this, so I do GREATLY appreciate it. 

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