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Stand Tall by Chelts-rhj

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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.




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