The dining hall was blissfully bare. The few occupants in black seated at the long house tables were too groggy or introverted to look up as James and Alba entered, much more interested in yawning into their cereal bowls. The largest group, the Beauxbatons, looked like they decided to come and eat before brushing their hair. They shuffled up and down the house tables, looking for the strange dishes dispersed amongst the glittering selection that reminded them of home.
Alba shrunk her crutches and stowed them away in her bag before taking a seat next to James at the end of the long Ravenclaw table. The morning light filtered in a dingy grey through thick clouds; candles were floating alongside to banish the shadows. As Maude was nowhere to be seen and the entire Gryffindor table was empty, the two friends were in relative privacy.
Alba thought that things would be easier knowing James would be her Companion, but her fingers tapped against the table as they sat, and her breath still caught in her throat. There were questions bouncing around inside her head, most of them involving his honesty. It made it difficult to focus. Her eggs and toast were blurry, buried in question marks.
There was too much evidence pointing in his direction to change her way of thinking, but she certainly hadn't been expecting a plea of innocence.
Reexamining the evidence wasn't precisely objective either. The moments after her name was called had definitely become victim to emotional charge.
The orange juice was cold, rushing down her throat and waking her up a little more. It didn't matter what he said anyway. Friends made mistakes, and now that the Cup had chosen her, he seemed on board with the whole "Survive the Triwizard Tournament" plan. Which was all that really mattered at the moment.
Apparently he felt differently.
While they ate, James didn't bring up conversation. He grumbled a little sometimes under his breath, and Alba was struck again by how off he seemed. He ate one plate of food in silence, then got seconds. Alba was picking at the crumbs on her plate as he finished, the silence stretching on, even as the stubble on his face lengthened with the dreary day.
Perhaps the Tournament wasn't the only thing on her best friend's mind.
Alba cleared her throat. "So, is Chandra still all pissed at me?" It was the only thing that popped into her mind. She'd noticed the girl's stiletto still stuck to the stair on her way down, thin clasp broken in her attempt to rip it off.
James didn't look up at her, just trailed his fork through the leftover syrup spilled on his plate. "Not sure, really..." he finally grumbled.
A furrow formed in the middle of her head as Alba frowned at him. James missed it, eyes still focused on his syrup painting. She pried without remorse. "Is she mad at you?"
James grumbled a bit.
"Oh..." his prolonged absence from the Gryffindor common room, and more importantly, Chandra's leash, had bells going off. "Are you two...alright?"
"No, not really. Look, I don't-"
Eager to hear about the aftermath of her encounter with Chandra, Alba interrupted quickly, "Too bad. Spill. You look awful." James gave a cry of protest, finally throwing her a hurt look. Alba simply raised an eyebrow, challenging him to protest. His concession was in the frown that quickly followed.
"What happened?" she asked greedily.
She was ready for a knock-down, drag-out fight story, but the sigh heaved from deep within his chest was too heavy to give her any satisfaction.
"I think we broke up."
Not again, she thought. The words didn't sit well with her though, and she searched for something comforting to say. Nothing too inspiring came to mind, so she took one of her messed up hands, and patted his shoulder. "It can't have been too bad if you only 'think' you broke up. Remember when Wilhelmina and Morrissey broke up? He ended up running around with his fingernails on fire by the time it was all said and done. And they ended up back together like, a week later."
James smiled at the memory, but it didn't touch anything but corners of his lips.
Chandra's absence was marked in the dimness of his features, the color of his lips. The longest they'd been apart was 48 hours, and to speak of it was forbidden.
That’s why Alba couldn’t bring herself to ever wish them apart. He was broken without her.
Alba was a little thankful when Albus joined them, sleep still caked in the crevices of his eyes, though he'd at least managed to put on a clean pair of robes. He took the seat across from James, sitting down sideways with his feet propped up next to him.
"Hey man," he offered gingerly. "How you holding up?"
His tone clearly suggested that, as the younger brother, he was fulfilling his duty to perform the post-break up check-up. The adult Weasley/Potter clan was a terrifyingly large family with overly-involved extended family, in Alba's opinion. The speed at which news traveled within their ranks should've been researched by ministry officials for liaison usage.
"Well," James offered with weak bravado, adding more to his syrup masterpiece, "all the pretty girls in my life are leaving. Chandra will have a new boyfriend soon, and now Alba is off seeking fame and riches and glory. I'm just a tag along, the footnote at the end of the page."
Albus, always able to find the humor in everything, laughed generously, his nose wrinkling just like his mother. "And here you thought Dad and Mum were going to lay off the Tournament talk. Once they find out Alba is Champion, you'll be getting all kinds of owls with tips and warnings about 'keeping her safe'.” Almost as if he rehearsed it, Al looked up comically, placing a finger just under his chin as though pondering some difficult question. “I wonder if Aunt Hermione will make one of her 'preparedness pamphlets' for the two of you."
He reached forward for a small triangle of toast before getting up and sauntering over to where a few of the groggy Beauxbatons were congregated, laughing the whole way.
"I have to go," Alba offered hastily towards James, her appetite vanished. "Sorry if I caused any trouble between you and-"
" 'S not your fault, Alba," he said, much too quietly for comfort.
She glanced up to wave, but found the expression on his face kept her attention. She'd been expecting something pitiful and sappy.
"If you didn't put your name in, and I didn't put your name in, then I will find out who did. And I will make sure they get what they deserve." With how intensely his eyes burned, Alba thought that his father must've been a very formidable enemy.
Not sure how to respond to his comment appropriately, Alba picked up her bag and headed to the Hospital Wing. She had a lot to do before the day was done.
Nurse Wainscott was crying before the heavy door shut behind her with a soft click.
"What were you thinking," the good woman sobbed as Alba hopped onto a bed and began undoing her shoe laces. "This... this is too dangerous, darling. I love you, you're a brilliant, bright, beautiful young-"
"-witch who had every right to enter the Triwizard Tournament. Now I need you to be with me in this, Nurse Wainscott. So you can be mad at me all you like, so long as you agree to be my Coach and help me get into tip-top shape for this. I have to beat boys, you know. Really... big-ish, foreign boys."
More tears spilled out of Nurse Wainscott's eyes, but this time with giggling spilling from her lips, and for the first time Alba wondered if the woman's constitution was quite up to the challenge of the competition. There were going to be a lot more dangerous things than exams and stairs ahead of her.
She bustled over and wrapped Alba in a tight hug before answering. "I wouldn't have it any other way, dear."
She sniffed, wiped at her cheeks, and cleared her throat. "Well then, we'd better do a full assessment. We'll just do the pre-planned workout today, but I'll get a more specific regimen worked up that should get you a little more up to speed as far as base muscle strength..." Alba lost track of what she was saying after a while. All kinds of ideas were being thrown around the empty hospital room as Alba worked and pushed her muscles.
No matter how likely she was to cry at the drop of a hat, Nurse Wainscott was probably the only person capable of helping Alba through the tasks safely. No one had been so attentive or involved in Alba's physical life than Nurse Wainscott. Nostalgia washed through her mind as Alba thought about everything she'd gone through with the older woman.
"I will contact the Potion Master at St. Mungo's and see if there isn't a better way to deliver your regimen that would increase efficiency for Task duration," the Nurse was saying from inside her office. She'd begun to pull out books, stacking them one on top of another in her chubby arms.
"Speaking of the potions," Alba called, a little worried about bringing the subject up, "you don't think there's anything in the rules that might keep me from taking them, do you?"
She heard a book drop from inside the office, and the sound of silence. Finally, the uncertain voice of Nurse Wainscott came drifting by with the dust. "I honestly don't know dear. I think there would be just as many reasons for it to be in the rules as there are reasons it wouldn't be, but I certainly hope they do allow it..."
Though Alba continued to watch her go around the wing, picking through all different shapes and sizes of bottles and jars, searching for one book or another, the woman wasn't talking aloud anymore. She was biting her lip, her eyes unfocused on whatever task was at hand. When not busy, her fingers found each other, wringing themselves over and over again in a most districating way.
"What will we do if I can't take them?" Alba asked as she finished with her last few stretches.
The continued silence was unnerving. Finally Nurse Wainscott came over, taking her gentle, wrinkled hands and probing the muscles, tendons, and ligaments in Alba's legs. Alba tried to hide her frown as her Coach came upon the knot from last night's cramp. It was a wasted effort.
Nurse Wainscott knew Alba's body better than Alba did herself at times. Otherwise, she wouldn't have been the best Coach.
"I'll give you an inflammation reduction salve for that calf and thigh before you go. Come and see me before you go back up, and I'll tell you if we can up the dose or not."
Alba didn't press for an answer as she went to get the medication.
Her hands were experienced, steady, and skilled as they went to work administering the ointment. With a great sigh she finally said, "As your Coach, I'll look into what rules exist currently in the Triwizard Tournament regarding potions of a more... enhancing nature. No matter what they decide though, well... We'll get through it dear... we'll just... get through it." But her voice wasn't light and caring like her touch, it was sombre and serious.
Nurse Wainscott pulled Alba's knee high's back up with skillful precision as a sharp knock rang out from the door, her respect for all her patient's privacy another winning attribute.
Ben cracked the door and shoved his mop of dirty blonde hair through. His grin lightened Alba's spirits a little. It was good to see him in a better mood.
"Ben!" Nurse Wainscott called, gesturing him in. "Are you feeling any better?"
"Yes, much, thank you ma'am," he dipped his head politely and sat on the cot she patted. He did seem much better than the previous night. The color was back in his cheeks, hair combed and clean, demeanor calm.
"What was wrong with you?" Alba asked, rather ungracefully. She disliked conjecture regarding her friends.
"Just needed a tonic, if you must know," Nurse Wainscott answered, disapproval permeating her tone. Being polite was something the good Nurse was rather insistent on.
Alba pursed her lips, more than willing to churn through the distraction. He did seem to be feeling unwell during the House Meeting, and skipped dinner. She wouldn't be surprised if he just gorged himself to discomfort at lunch or something.
The weight of all her unanswered questions, in regards to both James and Ben, had her stomach in knots.
"Do you have a plan yet?" She remembered Wilhelmina posing during the House Meeting. At the time her response had been to 'confirm her Coach and Companion'. Now that part was done, what was next?
"As I'll be popping up to see the Headmistress about those rules, do you want me to tell her that you've chosen your Triwizard Team dear?"
Alba's eyes darted to Ben of their own accord. He had stood from the cot, and was facing away from her. She watched him closely as she replied, "Yes please, thank you."
She saw his chest rise as he took a massive breath, but she was distracted by the nurse, and missed the rest of his reaction.
"Wonderful. I believe the remaining judges will be in tonight. They'll need to be announcing the Teams and the date of the First Task."
As Alba's stomach squirmed uncomfortably, she wondered if she shouldn't ask Nurse Wainscott for a tonic too.
“They’re coming tonight?” Alba asked.
“Of course dear, they’ll need to announce the date of the First Task so they can get the weighing and interviews over with.”
Alba groaned audibly, throwing herself back down against the soft sheet of the mattress beneath her. She'd done her research for James, and had all the judges memorized by heart. McGonogall, of course, she'd known for quite some time. Voda, and Maxime she'd already met, leaving only the Ministry judges to tantalize her imagination.
Strategically speaking, she needed at least one of them to favor her. McGonogall, as wonderful as she was, was too strict about rules to show her Champion any special treatment, a practice she apparently kept from Dumbledore’s time at Judge in the Tournament. However, the other Heads were not so noble. If she couldn’t have at least one judge like her even a little more than the others, it would make things even more difficult.
Alba sat up, throwing one leg and then the other off the edge. The Pain Philter was strongest right after taken, and she had to concentrate make sure that her feet were actually on the ground before trying to support her weight on them. She threw her bag over her shoulder, still thinking of the impending arrival of the Judges as she prepared to leave.
She could almost see her notes on the two Ministry officials, neat script going on for lines and lines...
Leatrice Zhang- Head of Magical Games and Sports. Initially served as Mrs. Potter's replacement for the Harpies while on maternity leave, and found her stardom shortly after. She enjoyed several years playing professionally until an unfortunate injury demanded her retirement. Generally noted for firecracker temperament towards biased referees, her stay as Head of Magical Games and Sports was marked by several screaming matches, both on and off the pitch, though in Alba’s opinion, the woman was always in the right.
Alba had seen pictures of her in the quidditch books that cluttered the otherwise informative selection on common room tables. In youth, at least, Zhang had been pretty. Pale eyes with dark, straight hair, and an intense focus while playing.
It would be interesting to see how age had taken it's toll on her body and disposition towards fair-play.
The other judge, Quinn Hambledon, Head of International Magical Cooperation was a little less publicized. He seemed to be a rather non-descript man, working one administrative position after another until he eventually became the most seasoned individual for the job, as far as she could tell. The old Prophets were void of any scandals involving him, and she didn’t have any friends with connections as high as his in the Ministry besides James, who had never heard of him.
The enigma of his personality was an itch that she just couldn't reach.
Her shoulder was shoved against the heavy door before she heard Ben calling, "Wait, Alba!"
"Oh," she offered, turning to look back at him, "Sorry, what?" The nurse was pouring a glass of something for him.
"Will you wait?" he asked, "It'll just be a second."
Alba began to push the door open. "Why? You can just catch up."
"I wait for you..." Ben retorted, as though the question was ridiculous.
Alba stopped in her tracks, watching as he downed the concoction with one toss of his head.
She’d never really thought about it before, but yes. Ben did wait for her. He waited for her after dinner, and class, he waited for her at the bottom of the stairs, and at the top if she fell behind.
The idea never occurred for her to wait for him as well.
"There," he breathed, smacking his lips. "No time at all, see?"
"I'll see you later, dear. Don't forget to stop by," Nurse Wainscott called, eyeing Alba from over the top of her glasses. “I will drag you out of bed by your night skirt and all the way back down here if you make me.”
"Yes, ma'am," Alba said, trying to smile.
Ben held the door open, waiting for Alba to pass under his arm before following her.
"I'm headed to the owlery. Have you had breakfast?" she asked Ben.
"Yes, I ate a bit before coming by. Do you want to be alone, or can I accompany you?" he said quite politely.
The corridor floor was covered in a thick red carpet, muffeling the sound of her crutches even as it pulled at the ends of her toes. With all her potions fresh and strong, she didn't mind the extra challenge of dragging her feet through the thick fibers. A grin pulled at her cheeks as she recognized the comfortable numbness working it’s way through her tired limbs, much more manageable now that a few minutes had passed.
"Sure," she called back. Truth be told, spending time with Ben was always a little fun, and after how much serious business had happened, she needed a break. "Don't help me too much though, knight in shining armor,” she teased, and he rolled his eyes at her as she continued. “I've got a competition to train for, you know. Not sure if you've heard, but I'm a pretty serious contender."
He laughed, shaking his head at her ridiculous attempt at sarcasm, "I never thought you were going to enter, Alba Williamson."
"Neither did I, Benjamin Honeypucker" she replied, trying her hardest to keep the frustration out of her voice. It was bad enough James was out to put her conspirator in St. Mungo’s, she didn’t need Ben in on the manhunt as well.
The owlery was chilly, wind sweeping through the open windows to push feathers across the dropping strewn floor. The sun itself was still hidden behind thick layers of clouds, not helping with the cold seeping in through the wooden panels and stone walls. The owls had started to settle after a night of hunting, and Alba searched the neat rows for one that looked a little more awake. Ben was searching for his baby, a Little owl with cream speckles running over its reddish brown feathers and large, amber colored eyes. She was cooing softly, high enough up that it was difficult for him to reach.
With a great stretch he managed to brush her soft front feathers. She yawned greatly, first one eye opening to gaze blearily at him before the other followed. The good-natured bird hopped onto his offered hand, cooing softly as she jumped up his arm onto his shoulder.
“Why not just use Velvet?” Ben asked. “It’s been a little while since she’s had any fun.”
“Sure,” Alba said, taking the letter she’d written for her parents out of her bag. She trusted Velvet a little more than the old school owls anyway. “I just need you to give this to my Mum, please Velvet. Dad won’t understand half of it.”
Velvet held out her leg patiently as Alba slowly tied it on. It was difficult, the decreased sensitivity from her potions making it hard to tell where the twine was beneath her stiff fingers, but Velvet was patient. Eventually, the brief letter was attached securely.
Before setting off, the bird fluffed her feathers, nipped at Ben’s ear, and gave a nice low hoot.
“Be safe,” Ben told her as she flew away, the dim rays of morning light turning her feathers into a beautiful auburn blaze on the horizon.
Thunk, thunk, thunk. The two friends were startled by the sound of footsteps. Unsure of whether she was ready for the onslaught of public opinion again, Alba pulled Ben deeper into the recesses of the shadowy haven where it would be more difficult to be seen. Not that there were any real places to hide in the circular construction, but they didn’t have to be right by the door either.
Her heart sunk a little more as a conversation began drifting up with the footsteps. The cadence and tone was off, like an untuned instrument, but it wasn’t until the door opened loudly she realized that the two were speaking in a foreign language.
It was the Durmstrang Champion, the boy whose name was called first, and the girl they’d seen get off the boat following behind. They seemed to be arguing about something, but Alba really had no idea. Sometimes other languages just sounded angry.
Alba tried not to stare, but she was too tempted to study her competition now that shock had worn off. In the trophy room she hadn’t really been able to think about anything useful, so she tried to take in as much as she could through side glances.
He was tall, at least six feet, and athletic, though thinner than the Roux boy from Beauxbatons. His hair was a dirty blonde, straight, and cut in a fashionable, uneven way that made it look much more disheveled than it actually was. Being friends with James, she knew what actual messiness looked like, and what he had was certainly manufactured. Alba frowned a bit at him as he spoke with the girl.
Long shiny black hair hung down her back in a uniform braid that ended below her butt. Her face was hard, unattractive in its combativeness as she spit words back at the boy before her.
His cheeks were flushed as he answered, though he was quieter. The more she heard, the more Alba was rather certain they weren’t having an amicable conversation.
Finally the two realized that they weren’t alone, and after the girl threw another comment at him, the boy turned towards where Ben and Alba stood.
“Please excuse us,” he said in very good English, “you must think us so impolite.”
Ben, much more comfortable in these types of situations than Alba, offered a hand and stepped forward while introducing himself. “No problem, I’m Benjamin Honeypucker, though most people just call me Ben, and this is-”
“Alba Williamson,” the girl interrupted, her eyes traveling up and down as she inspected Alba, completely ignoring Ben. Her English was dripping with a thick accent. “I am Minodora Vesela, Companion.” She held her head high, voice thick with pride as she made the announcement.
Alba was sorely tempted to roll her eyes and walk away, but Ben saved her.
“Oh really? That’ll be fun. Who’s your Champion? I didn’t make it to the feast last night,” he said, looking back and forth between both of the Durmstrang students expectantly.
“That would be me,” the boy said good naturedly, smiling at them both. He offered a hand to Alba now, having already shook with Ben. “Dimitri Ivanovic.”
Not wanting to seem rude like Vesela, Alba let go of her arm crutch and stretched her weak right arm out to accept his hand. It was warm and coarse, covered in callouses.
While he had a pretty enough exterior, he was apparently adept at work too.
“Well, I’d introduce myself again, but I think everyone’s heard my name enough in the last twelve hours,” Alba said, attempting to bring some humor into the equation.
“We would more like to hear about… that,” Vesela said, nodding towards the arm crutch attached to her proffered arm with an unkind sneer on her features.
Alba frowned, ready to retort, but an explosion of incomprehensible words drowned her out.
Ivanovic spewed and spitted at her, his nose wrinkled as he looked at her with what could only be described as disgust.
Alba was surprised, and glanced at Ben. He too seemed taken aback by the entire exchange.
Ivanovic lifted his hand quickly, pointing behind Vesela where the door stood ajar, the stairs beyond shrouded in shadow.
With a venomous retort flying from her lips, Vesela turned on her heel and flew down the stairs, braid bouncing behind in her haste.
The whole exchange took only a few moments, leaving Alba wide eyed in her amazement. As Ivanovic turned to face them again, he had a smile on his face. The change in his demeanor was so complete and sudden that it took them both off guard.
“My apologies, Williamson. She should know better than that,” he offered. His teeth weren’t as white as she expected them to be.
“What did you say to her?” Alba asked curiously. She still hadn’t formed a real opinion on him yet, but so far he was at least amusing.
“Oh, the Russian? I told her that I could not abide her rudeness, and if she couldn’t learn to hold her tongue, there would be no place for her on my Triwizard Team after all.”
Alba smiled as Ben burst with laughter. “I think I like you Ivanovic,” she said.
“Call me DImitri, please,” he responded.