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?
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 Longbottom and
“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.