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
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.