Alba's mind had been rather calmed by the talk with McGonogall, but her body was still running on fumes. Too much had happened, and most of them had involved stairs. As she stood at the bottom of the Ravenclaw tower, she seriously considered the downsides of being in her house, not that she would ever trade.
Alba took a deep breath and leaned into one crutch as she started the ascent.
The stairs were certainly at the top of her list of Cons. Completely unnecessary in her opinion. Sure, the view was great, and the location made setting up a telescope out of the window quite nice, but over all not worth it. Towers weren't even that safe, structurally speaking. Though she could see the aesthetic appeal of the skillfully cut and placed stone rising majestically above. Still completely unnecessary.
That wasn't the only thing though. Alba debated about it for a moment before deciding that the Bronze Eagle would have to be number two on her list of cons. It was entertaining sometimes, a real teaching experience, sure, but what about when you really had to pee? Did Rowena just never think about emergencies? That little knocker was a stubborn piece of worn metal, ridiculously dedicated to the point of obsessiveness. It was difficult to go all the way downstairs to find a bathroom when you needed one twenty minutes prior, and the bird had rather creepy laugh.
"Each house has one of these, but which is yours, safe to keep?" the obnoxious little thing posed to her when she finally crossed the last step.
As there was no one around, she had no compunctions about solving it aloud. "Safe to keep? Well that'd be a secret... each house has one... uh... Gryffindor is password, Slytherin is password I suppose, Hufflepuff is location... and ours is..."
The blood drained from her face as the words leaked out of her mouth, "House Meeting,".
Ravenclaw House had no password. The location wasn't secret. A few times during her stint at the school she had entered the common room to see a rather smug looking Gryffindor or Slytherin sitting in a blue armchair, entirely too pleased with themselves. "I got it right!" they'd eventually say to someone or other, to which we normally replied, "So do our first years." They couldn't go upstairs, much like boys couldn't go into the girl's dormitories, but they didn't know the big secret.
House Meetings. Academia was a sport within itself in Ravenclaw Tower, one that others took quite a bit more seriously than others. At the beginning of the year, before all the first years were tucked safely into bed, the Head of House and Prefects gathered together to educate them on the Rules of House Meetings, and introduce them to The Mediator, the procedure for Nominations, and all the other internal traditions of Ravenclaw.
Sure enough, as the door swung in towards the Common Room, she heard a low rumble of voices waiting for her. She couldn't bring herself to take another step.
"There you are," she heard a soft whisper.
Lavern Morrison, sixth year Prefect, was waiting for her in the entryway. "I'm really sorry about this," the girl offered, chewing on her lip. "I tried to get them to wait, but when the Mediator heard so many people arguing, well... you know how he gets."
The Mediator was definitely number three on her list. Unaccomodating, nosey, and intrusive, The Mediator served as Ravenclaw's impartial judge. Just as the Bronze Eagle was obsessive about riddles, The Mediator was prejudiced against opinions.
Alba knew that people usually thought the defining trait in a Ravenclaw boiled down to being 'smart'. However, after years of thinking on it, Alba had decided that it was more like everyone in Ravenclaw wanted to know. Ravenclaw musicians wanted to know how the instrument was made, the mechanics behind how it worked, the spells used to enhance it, the classic technique used to handle it, and then... then they wanted to play it. Others wanted to know everything about Quidditch, or Potions, or Healing. And some just wanted to know the truth about everything. The Mediator took that to an entirely new concept.
Lavern pressed her hand gently against Alba's shoulder, insisting as gently as she could that they enter the circle of gathered students.
The first thing Alba noticed was that everyone was present. The typical House Meeting was only held with students of the same year. It gave everyone a chance to discuss who had gained and lost house points, who was falling behind in classwork, and the safety to voice any concerns or problems you have with your peers. It worked best if only those in your year, those who knew you best, were present. It was efficient.
No one seemed to notice Lavern slink off to one side as Alba walked into the center of the circular common room. All eyes were on her. First years gathered in their little cliques peered out in confusion from the front, a full head an shoulders shorter than most of the gathered student body.
Her eyes darted about from face to face, searching for the few people she knew she could count on during this. Maude was peeking out from behind two taller boys in Fifth Year. Ben was sitting a chair over by the fireplace. A flutter of concern washed over her irritation as she assessed his condition. He was slumped forward in his chair, hands knotted in his curly hair. His clothes seemed unusually disheveled. She realized for the first time that she had not seen him at dinner. Was he alright?
"Order." A command rang out from The Mediator, silencing the room. Alba was relieved when most of the eyes in the room darted from her to the portrait hanging above the fireplace. The ornate frame around The Mediator glinted rather nicely, the contours thrown into sharp contrast by the fire beneath it. He was a rather gaunt man, his cheeks hallow, the bones poking out beneath sagging skin. When he spoke, it was with gusto, and nearly impossible to ignore. The only two people looking in her direction were Maude and Ben.
"As our first item of business, I believe that Congratulations are in order for the entire Ravenclaw House on producing a Champion for the Triwizard Tournament."
A few people raised their hands to clap, but Alba's heart fell a little at how pitiful the sound was.
The thin lines of his face curved downward into a rather wrinkly frown. "It concerns me greatly that there is discontent on this event. With the cooperation of the House Prefects, I have elected to convene this House Meeting in order to educate all the noble members of the Ravenclaw House..."
The blood in Alba's body pumped a little faster, and little beads of sweat gathered on the insides of her palms. It was her worst nightmare come true.
"...on it's Champion in this Tournament. As per the usual, we as a House, are to be precise, logical, and reasonable in our discussions." His eyes narrowed as he peered out at the students gathered before him. "Opinions are to be kept to yourself." The Mediator had a bad habit of getting quieter when he really wanted you to be listening. Several students were leaning forward to catch his last words. " Facts are educating... Opinions are gossip. I do not gossip." He spit the last word, and Alba imagined that were he actually flesh and blood, he might've spit on Ben.
Her thoughts abruptly shifted when all the eyes in the room darted back to her. A cramp started in her calf, and slowly worked it's way into her thigh. It had been a long day. She would be greatful for increase in Pain Philter tomorrow morning.
Gregor Melvin, the other Prefect, stood and waited to be acknowledged by The Mediator. There had been a lot more House Meetings since Gregor had been made Prefect. He seemed to enjoy the formality of it all, and the recognition that could be attained.
"I believe that the Champion, Alba Williamson, should be allowed first to give any and all information that she believes may be relevant to the discontent of her being named Champion."
It had always rather amazed her how Melvin managed to phrase things so that they satifisfied The Mediator. She was awful at if herself. The last time she'd tried to speak with him, not during a Meeting, just speak to him, he told her that she was 'simply too impatient to accomplish much of anything'. And promptly left. Though how he could hate opinions so much and profer his own so freely had her counting the letters in 'hipocrasy' for future word-search reference.
"Very well," he raised a hand, gesturing towards where Alba stood, and she lost count. "If you please, Ms. Williamson..."
She took a deep breath, heart stuttering, shoving words up her throat. "Uh... As some of you might be aware, I was born with a disease called Cerebral Palsy." She waited for some form of acknowledgement. After a few moments of silence, Alba continued. "It's a neurological condition of the brain primarily affecting muscle development and growth." She paused long enough to lick her lips. The top of her mouth was dreadfully dry. "This happens en-utero, making it difficult to prevent by both muggle and magical means." Thankfully The Mediator found her definition and explanation to be devoid of opinion, because he gave no protest. No one else gathered seemed ready to interrupt either. "Each case is unique to the individual. In my case, the disease has decreased range of motion, strength, flexibility, and functionality of several limbs-"
"Be precise, Ms. Williamson. 'Several' is a generalization." The Mediator finally interrupted.
She stalled, unable to find a good place to rest her eyes. Maude was still peeking from behind someone, though her head was tilted to the side, her eyes focused. Ben was still staring at her, hands clasped to his head. "Uh... well..," unsure of what else to do, she straightened to her unimpressive full height, leaning less on her crutches, though a twinge of pain shot up one leg. She raised her right arm, spreading her fingers out as far as she could. Predictably, the pinky and ring finger remained curled. "Two of the fingers on my right hand do not function properly. The integrity of my entire left limb is compromised by growth defects in the muscles, tendons, and ligaments. I lack strength and dexterity because of it."
She took a deep breath, her face turning red as she realized that in her current state, she would have to ask someone for their chair in order to continue with the presentation. Though Alba tried to think of it like explaining things to children, it felt much more intimate. She would have to do all the explaining correctly in order to save herself a lecture from The Mediator. It took a few moments to gather the right words.
"Mediator, I require a chair in order to proceed-" there was a loud scrapping noise as Ben stood while pulling out the chair from beneath him, "with... my... presentation." People fidgeted in the silence as Ben walked to where she stood in the center of the room.
His usual jovial face was grim, the playful mouth set into a hard line. He didn't linger, simply sat it quickly beside her and returned. Alba was rather grateful for the professional manner. It made the whole thing more... clinical. Like reading a case report out loud. Though as The Mediator disliked jargon, she would have to explain it the long way round.
Alba set her crutches against the back of the chair and sat, immediately bending forward to remove her shoes and knee high socks.
"As you can see, I require the use of ankle braces, tucked inside supportive shoes, to ensure that the muscles and tendons in both legs remain stretched enough to enable a sustainable gait. When left unchecked..." Alba grunted a little as she pulled on the straps keeping the brace on her right foot tight. Finally they gave, and she pulled her foot out of them. There was another sock beneath, for comfort, but the effect was obvious. "...the muscle reverts back to it's original inclination." Even as she pulled her foot from the brace, the muscle contracted, shortening her Achilles tendon. As per the norm, her foot was pulled into that ballerina like position. Not exactly the most efficient for walking.
Movement to the left caught her attention, and Alba straightened in the chair, letting her bare toes touch the floor beneath.
Chelsea Hammond was standing, waiting to be acknowledge with her frizzy hair piled on top of her head. There was a pencil hiding in it.
Alba looked to The Mediator, waiting for some kind of signal.
"Are you willing to recieve an inquiry, Ms. Williamson?" he asked.
"Yes... sir," she replied rather awkwardly.
Alba was relieved to hear the genuine curiosity in her voice as she posed the question, "Is that why you need arm sticks?"
Alba laughed a little. "Yes. Braces help my feet, but hinder the range of motion for my ankles, making it harder to maintain balance. The arm crutches add two additional points of stability."
Another person was standing now, Jennings, a rather private boy from her year. Alba looked to the Mediator again.
"Do you have any other information you wish to divulge before answering more inquiries?"
Alba thought for a moment. Nothing else seemed rather pertinent.
He turned towards the boy. "Your inquiry?"
"Last year, Alba didn't need to use her crutches anymore. Why did she start wearing them again? Is there a remission?" Alba found it odd that he spoke the question to the wall where The Mediator hung, and not to the center of the room.
"Do you have relevant information to divulge, Ms. Williamson?"
One oil-based eyebrow lifted comically as she let the silence stretch. "Then by all means, continue," he eventually said
"Oh, well..." she cleared her throat, but the words stuck to the sticky top of her mouth. Finally, the information flowed, detailing the specifics of her regimen. Maude nodded and spoke up a little, and a few of the girls in her year seemed to be doing much of the same. Ben was standing by the fireplace with his arms crossed, just watching her.
There was a familiar detachment to her words. It was rather like being in St. Mungo's. Not nearly as nerve racking as she thought. As she finished explaining about the potions, someone stood.
Alba frowned as she turned to nod at The Mediator. He returned the sentiment.
"Yes?" she asked the younger girl across from her.
"Hello..." the girl squeaked, "I'm Evelyn. Evelyn Maritime." Alba was rather surprised when she came forward to shake her hand, coaxing a smile to Alba's features. "Are you going to have to stop taking the positions now that you're a Triwizard Champion? I mean, some might think that a Strengthening Solution or Pain Philter is an unfair advantage."
Alba stared blankly back as the room waited for her response. She had no idea. Wasn't Evelyn Maritime getting just a little bit ahead of herself?
"That's ridiculous," Ben said loudly from his stoic position.
"OPINION!" The Mediator roared, frieghtening Evelyn into scurrying back to the crowd.
It was going to be a long night.
Finally, Alba cracked her eyes open to the early morning rays of sun peeking through her bedroom curtains. She waited with bated breath for the quiet, whispered words of her dorm mates. When none came she realized that it was Saturday, and while she was a freak of nature who didn't particularly like to sleep in, she and Maude were the only ones of that sentiment.
Sure enough when she pulled the curtains back it was to find Maude's bed nice and tidy, all made up, while the girl herself had probably been at breakfast for a good half hour.
Alba winced as her toes touched the floor. It was cold, the biting kind, and she rubbed the stiffness out of her calves with one hand while groping for her wand with the other. "So, without the Philter, you hurt all the time?" she remembered a squeaky first year asking. Alba shook her head, as though that could stop the memory of all those voices. Too many questions. Most of which she didn't like thinking about, much less talking about.
A few flicks of the wrist later, Alba had a mismatched pair of knee high socks and a nice, warm outfit to change into. She was looking forward to a good stretch and conversation with Nurse Wainscott. Hopefully she'd beat Ben and James awake. It would be nice to enjoy a quiet, relaxing breakfast in solitude.
She'd have to send her parents a letter, explaining about the Tournament. Well, lying about the Tournament. It's not as though she could write "Sorry Mum, would've warned you, but I didn't put my name in,". She had to think of something plausible. A dare maybe? Though that seemed a bit juvenile. She'd been rather... vocal about her disapproval of James possible entry.
Her stomach growled, and Alba frowned in the mirror as she pulled out her Strengthening Solution in it's red, curvy bottle.
"When do you take it?" a boy had asked, eyes narrowed as though in suspicion. Maude had stood, been acknowledged, and defended. "Every morning. I'm in her dorm. As she said before, the Philter is administered by the Nurse, but the Solution she takes in the morning."
It burned going down, a smoky, bitter flavor that warmed her belly and sent tongues of flame licking down her limbs. A few moments, and it was gone, the magic working into her muscles.
Alba stared into the mirror, trying to escape the inevitable. Eventually her memory dragged Ben's voice from the depths of her mind. His eyes unusually distant, and his mouth flat without humor, "Is James your Companion, then?"
She didn't have an answer then, and didn't have an answer now.
Deep breaths, she thought, finding her breath was coming in sharp gasps as she was half way down the spiral stair case. Deep breaths...
It did help that by the end of the House Meeting her classmates at least knew the facts about her condition. Now they would be able to dispel any propaganda or ignorance. That would be helpful. However, she felt as though the Gryffindors might very well like to see her fail, as they felt she 'took' the chance from Potter. Hufflepuff was likely to root for the underdog, while Slytherin was always a toss up on whether or not they supported someone like-
The voice startled her. She'd been on autopilot, passing through corridors to the Great Hall without much thought, but as she came upon the Grand Staircase, James was leaning on the banister.
He looked awful, if she was being unbiased. There were deep circles under his eyes, and his clothes were horribly wrinkled, as though he'd slept in them. His hair was always like that though. Alba's mouth turned down of it's own accord, and she allowed the expression to stay. "James," she said curtly, continuing on her way down the stairs.
The rubber end of her crutch made a soft squeak on the stair. "Why didn't you tell me you put your name in?"
The question had her eyebrows pulling down, her head whipping back before she could stop it. "Excuse me?" she spat back, making a mental note to set an interrogatory limit on her daily interactions from then on.
"Why didn't you tell me?" he said calmly.
Alba's mind was racing, examining and re-examining all the information. The equation simply didn't add up. "Do you really think I'm that stupid, James?" she glanced around to be sure they were alone before whispering, "I know you put my name in James. I covered for you!" She let the disgust in her voice show through.
Now it was James's turn to look confused. "I didn't put your name in," he said quickly.
Alba narrowed her eyes at him. "You were being all weird about the whole thing! 'I'll take care of it' " she imitated in a ridiculous low voice. "And then insisting I come in the circle-"
She shut up as he reached forward and took her chin in his hands, turning her face to look directly at him as a parent would a misbehaving child. "Alba Williamson, I'm telling you right now that I did not put your name into the Goblet of Fire."
She jerked away from him as one drop of doubt spilled into her mind. It wasn't like James to lie to her, and the fact that he was doing it with a straight face made her insides burn more than the Strengthening Solution did.
"I don't want to hear it, James," she started back down the stairs, trying to hurry while being careful. "Just leave me alone."
Of course, he wouldn't let it rest, and it was easy to follow behind. "I don't want you to be in this competition, Alba."
"That's why you chose my name, right? Least likely to be spit back out. Too bad that backfired," she muttered.
"Will you stop it with that! The paper everyone saw me put into the Goblet? It was blank! Nothing was on it. I didn't put your name in!" He was really sounding exasperated now, and she pulled one arm crutch away from him as he tried to grab hold of it.
"I don't care what you say, James, it doesn't make a difference."
"Well, whether or not my friends think I'm a liar makes a difference to me, alright?" he was speeding up to come along beside her.
Alba stopped in her tracks, letting him block her way. Her stomach was in knots, churning over the potion in her belly.
James had her by the shoulders, arms stretched out to their full length as he bent down to her level. "I, James Sirius Potter, do solemly swear that I-"
"Can it, Potter. I don't want to hear it. I have just one question for you." There went her nervous system again, kicking the adrenaline into high gear.
James frowned again, his mouth opening and shutting as he debated over the correct response. "What's the question?"
"Do you have any hope at all that I have a chance to survive this competition?" Though she tried her best, Alba's voice wavered a little on the delivery.
Her heart sunk as James shook his head.
"I don't think you can just survive," he said quietly, "I expect you to at least get second. That Pierre what's his name couldn't handle half the stuff you can. And bronze isn't really your colour," he teased, pulling at the blue and bronze stripped scarf at her neck.
One rogue tear was threatening to slip down her cheek. Alba tried to blink it away, but instead James took one hand off her shoulder and used it to wipe the annoying moisture away.
"I don't believe you," she sniffed, "but I need you to be my Companion. You got me into this mess-"
"Incorrect." James inserted.
"-and now I need you to get me out of it." she finished.