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!”