Alba awoke the next morning with one bleary eye cracking open to watch the fog of her breath rise up to the canopy four poster. The chill seeped into every crack and crevice of the thick blanket wrapped around her, tightening her calves in a particularly achy manner. Normally she would’ve charmed the blanket warmer and drifted off back to sleep, but such wasn’t her luck today. Nurse Wainscott had decided otherwise.
Alba sat up, taking in a sharp breath as the sheet dropped from her shoulders.
“Alba?” Maude asked from behind the closed curtains on her left, much more sleepy than usual.
“Yes?” Alba hissed back.
“What the hell are you doing up?” Maybe Maude wasn’t that much a morning person after all, Alba wondered.
“I have to go see Nurse Wainscott before breakfast.”
“To do your hair?” Maude inquired further.
Alba didn’t want to talk about it. Surrounded by darkness, sheltered by the drawn curtains, she brought her abnormal hands to the long locks falling down her shoulders, running the few fingers she could through it while she had the chance. Nurse Wainscott would brush it, place it in a knot high on her head, and fasten her hat securely on top so that no one could tell exactly how long it was. Well, no one but the people who saw her go down the stairs every morning for the next week. And her roommates.
“Yes,” she responded despondently.
Maude was quiet, but only for a few moments. “Is it as long as it used to be?” she asked, reminding Alba that Maude, and everyone else in the tower, remembered the younger, more dependent version of her too.
“Longer,” Alba couldn’t help but whisper back.
“Do you want me to put it up?” Maude asked her.
“Can I go back to sleep?” Alba asked, hoping the tower would warm quickly once the sun breached the horizon.
“I’ll make sure to wake you up in time,” Maude promised.
About an hour later, Alba was sitting, not much warmer, on Maude’s bed, surprised at how deftly Maude’s hands moved through her strange new hair. Her rhythm was sure and hypnotic, and if she wasn’t so anxious about the whole ordeal, she may have drifted off again. Maude got halfway through a french braid before Alba remembered to say, “A bun please! I’m so sorry, but could you put it in a bun?”
Her friend had just smiled at her in the mirror, once again running her fingers through the chestnut brown waves so that the woven strands tumbled down her back again.
“My mum taught me to braid hair when I was little. My grandmum has long, beautiful silver hair, but her arms get too tired to french braid it. When I’m home for summer she shows me all the new fashion models and how they braid their hair. We practised…”
It gave Alba a little relief to hear that Maude enjoyed the activity. Hopefully she wouldn’t mind lending her hands a few more times before the Ball.
“There you go,” Maude finally said, taking a step back as Alba squinted into the mirror. It certainly wasn’t quite the high and tight that Nurse Wainscott had perfected, but the slightly messy puff was cute and still fit under her hat so that she didn’t feel silly about suddenly having two more feet of hair.
Of course, Ben wouldn’t be deterred so easily. “Did you grow your hair out? How long?” Maude made a not-so-discreet noise to shut him up, but the damage was done. Ben wasn’t one for being bashful. “Should I grow a beard? We can get matching braids or something for the ball.”
He was always good for a laugh. “Please don’t,” Alba managed after a bit of giggling. “ We’d look ridiculous. What do your robes look like? Mum should be sending me some this morning, she was to visit Diagon Alley yesterday.” The whole ordeal was terrifying; at least the TO DO list helped her attack the issues in a logical way. The main priority currently was wardrobe. A persistent nemesis. Maude held the heavy door open as the trio headed downstairs for breakfast.
Ben went in first, waiting for them both on the first step. “They’re your standard dress robes. Black and white. Not much fuss. Little tight about the neck, I’ll have to try and make it loosen a bit or I won’t be able to dance long.”
“I’m only dancing the one time,” Alba asserted firmly, planting her crutches firmly on the landing and preparing herself for the descent.
“Well that’s fine and dandy, but I like a little swing in my party, thank you ma’am,” he winked at her as she took his hand, Maude bringing up the rear.
“Pretty sure Mum was looking for a white dress, so I’m glad your robes aren’t…” she paused to concentrate on the last step in the staircase, “loud or anything. I’m going for simple.”
Alba found her heart beating a little faster as she tore off the plain packing paper from the parcel her mother’s owl delivered once they’d finally arrived at the great hall for breakfast. She pulled off the lid without hesitation, picking up the note and tearing it open as she eyed the beautiful white satin material.
I’m sorry Alba,
This was the only style they had left. I wish I would’ve been able to make it out there sooner. I hope you have a wonderful night.
All the love, Mum.
“What’s she sorry for?” James asked suddenly, taking a large bite of apple as he bent over her shoulder, sleep once again poking out of the corner of his eye.
“Not sure yet…” Alba mumbled, letting him take the letter from her as she pulled out the dress. It seemed perfectly fine. Not the least bit sheer, a good length. It was twisted in a knot of sorts on one side so that the material was gathered at the waist and draped down-
She saw it. The “I’m sorry” her mother was talking about, the ‘only style they had left’. It was cut short in front, so that it fell just below the knees in an arc that trailed to the ground in the back. Alba supposed it would be beautiful on the right girl. On a girl like Chandra, or Maude even, it would be the perfect blend of flirty and classy. However, for Alba, it was only the perfect height to show off all her foot equipment; braces, knee highs, tennis shoes and all. And that dumb photographer Mrs. Potter worked with was bound to take pictures of it all, then spread them across the front page of the paper for every to gawk and wonder at.
Alba let the shining beautiful material fall through her fingers back into its box, crumpled in a heap. James and Ben were bickering over the note, but there was pressure on her chest making it hard to breath or listen. She wanted nothing more than to go to the hospital wing, lose herself in the counts and repetitions of her exercises until the Yule Ball was just a distant imagining again.
“It’s too short,” she finally told James, leaving the dress on the table. “She couldn’t find anything longer. I’m going to see Nurse Wainscott, not hungry.”
Her friends knew her well enough not to follow. Alba almost hoped Maude would leave the almost perfect dress for the house elves to take care of, but either way it was sure to be waiting for her in the dorm tonight, just as mockingly beautiful as her new hair.
Nurse Wainscott attempted to be as optimistic as ever, thoroughly ruining her pity party of solitude. “Well, it’s not like everyone doesn’t already know, dear. What’re you trying to hide with a longer hem anyway?”
Alba finished counting the repetition of fifteen before responding, taking the time to stretch out her leg a bit before continuing with the other side. Calf exercises were the worst. “Well, I’d rather have everyone staring at my head wondering ‘where’d all that hair come from’ than at my legs thinking, ‘wow look at how messed up that shi-’.”
“Alba!” Nurse Wainscott cut her off with a sharp look. “I hate to be rude, but no one cares about how ‘messed up’ your legs are more than you.”
Alba just frowned, unable to formulate an appropriate response. There was a twinge starting in her knee that may mean shin splints later.
“I think that’s enough for now; don’t want to strain yourself. I’ll see you after dinner,” Nurse Wainscott said sadly, and Alba hated the disappointment in the good woman’s eyes as she left.
Alba failed to find an outlet for her frustrations in her morning classes. All of her professors seemed content to do reviews and the such, and it was apparent why. After years of building, Hogwarts was finally host to the Yule Ball again, and all of her classmates- except Maude- were buzzing with excitement, their heads much too occupied to learn anything new.
Alba found that she was more and more daunted by the prospect of the ‘first dance’ than anything else. Her mind churned over the complications the ordeal presented, failing at every turn to find a solution.
By the end of the day, she was desperate indeed. Only six more days until the Ball, and she hadn’t the right shoes, hadn’t practised with her partner, and hated her dress. Well, maybe not hated it, it just represented the very image she was never able to achieve.
“More precious than gold, but cannot be bought; Can never be sold, only earned if it’s sought; If it is broken it can still be mended; At birth it can’t start nor by death is it ended,” the eagle knocker demanded of her.
She blinked at it a few times, why not an easy one tonight, like ‘I have only one silver eye that cannot see’ or something… I’d say love, but it can start at birth, as parents love their children from the very start… still…
“It’s not… love?” Alba decided to say, if rather uncertainly. The eagle didn’t respond. “So… how about… friendship?”
Apparently the knocker wasn’t in the mood for praise; the door opened in silence.
The day before the Yule Ball, Alba was no more hopeful about her upcoming dance than she had been at the beginning of the week. Not even dance lessons with Ben could cheer her up.
She had gone to therapy after their third practise disheartened, talked very little, and eventually made her way back to the common room in a daze, not even stopping by her favorite portraits on the way.
In order to distract herself from the panic slowly rising through her chest, she filtered her thoughts to random, unimportant things. The riddle the eagle posed was easy, and she made it back into bed without a fuss.
Most of the girls in her year were still up and about when she entered the dormitory. Wilhelmina had very sparkly maroon dress robes, which she was twirling about in so that little flecks of candlelight danced around the walls with her. The other girls had blue dresses in varying shades, one with silver trim, one with the traditional Ravenclaw bronze, and the other accented with a deep green color. Perhaps her date was Slytherin.
Alba left hers crumpled in the box on top of the trunk at the foot of her bed. She didn’t take it out and look at it. Nor did she fawn over the others’ clothes.
“Could you help me take my hair down?” She quietly asked Maude, no hope of being able to wait until the others were asleep. They would be up all night with talk of the Ball.
Maude made quick work of it, and Alba was in bed with her head on the pillow before anyone could ask, “Are you excited about tomorrow?”
Her dreams were plagued with nightmares, the most terrifying of which involved Ben slowly enlarging throughout the first dance until he was taller than grawp and then stepped on the hem of her dress so that it ripped, showing everyone her choice of underwear: pink long johns. After waking up a bit out of breath, it was a relief to remember she didn’t actually own a pair of pink long johns anyway.
James floated throughout her dreams as well, but she rubbed the memory of him away with the sleep in her eyes as the sun rose the next morning.
The inevitable day had arrived. The Yule Ball was upon her.
Or at least, it would be after a few hours. Though, judging by the state of the dorm when she finally pulled back the curtain, Alba’s dorm mates couldn’t get ready fast enough.
Almost every bed was covered in make-up, hair potions, shoes, stockings, dresses, undergarments, and all sorts of contraptions she had no idea how to use. Three girls were crowded around the mirror, all half done up with powders and the like, while Maude was in the shower from the sounds of it.
“Good morning Alba! Ready for your big day?” Genevieve asked, taking some brightly colored contraptions out of her hair. Alba was surprised to find they had turned her usually straight strands into corkscrew curls overnight. Interesting.
“Mmmm,” she responded, “Nice hair.” The girl beamed back at her, the question successfully dodged.
Alba had halfway decided to crawl back into bed, therapy be damned, before she remembered that the potions would be particularly useful; therefore a trip to Nurse Wainscott couldn’t be skipped, and in order for potions to happen, breakfast had to happen.
She’d need to get ready for the day too, no matter how scary it was.
The day went much better than expected, as far as her ability to procrastinate was concerned. By the time lunch was done, she had managed to revisit all of her favorite paintings, hide from Ben in her secret spot to avoid hurting his feelings by not being excited, and sent a letter to her mother thanking her for the dress. She was almost certain it came across as sincere.
All of Alba’s hard earned composure evaporated as she crossed the threshold to Ravenclaw Tower after lunch.
Chandra, of all people, was sitting in the Common Room, her deep red nails drumming on a side table adjacent to her arm chair of choice. She stood as Alba walked in, pulling her straightening her skirt nervously as she did so.
“What are you doing here,” Alba asked nervously.
“Well,” Chandra continued to fiddle with her clothes and the bag slung across one shoulder, “James was telling me about a few of your wardrobe issues and I really think I can help,” she explained in a rather meek voice. “I know we don’t always get along, but…” she finally met Alba’s eyes, “this really is my thing you know.”
Alba was unsure of what the plan was. “Can you make my dress longer, but only in the front?” She asked, too suspicious for hope.
“No, I can make you look good in the dress you already have. I am ninety five percent sure.”
Alba was surprised by the percentage. It seemed much more official than an, ‘I am pretty sure’ and more honest than a guarantee.
The grin in response was slightly unsettling, but then, Alba supposed most adventures were a little unsettling in the beginning.
The secrecy was surprising. Chandra insisted on moving all the equipment to the Prefects bathroom, which she had been allowed access to via James for the special occasion. She began to talk more and more as they neared the place, responses mostly unnecessary.
Two hours later, Alba stared at herself in the mirror, marveling at how wonderful her hair looked. The process had been not entirely bad, though a bit uncomfortable at times. While she had been rather quiet throughout the ordeal, she had requested light make-up and natural tones, and Chandra had done quite a beautiful job at it, though Alba was certainly no expert.
After some coaxing, Chandra had convinced Alba that some silver shiny stuff around her eyes and a little on her cheeks would be nice, bring out the white dress and whatnot. She liked the effect it had.
Her favorite part was the hair, most certainly. It had taken time to get used to seeing it down, but Chandra wanted to leave it natural, with the slight curls framing Alba’s face nicely without any sponges, heat, or potions. Chandra had insisted on braiding it, though not in any fashion Alba had seen before. Dozens of tiny braids criss crossed the back of her head so that a veil of sorts was draped over the locks in various places, pinned and secured with a little magic, it reminded Alba of something you’d see on a fairy bride out of some children’s book.
“What do you think?” Chandra asked, pinning the last knotted strand into place.
“I love it,” Alba told her honestly, “but my dress-”
“Yes, yes, that’s coming, but it’s the boring part. Do you want me to change anything?” Chandra insisted.
“No, it’s perfect,” she reiterated, eager to get on with ‘the boring part’ that was causing her so much anxiety.
“That’s what I like to hear, now you need to pick some shoes,” Chandra picked up her bag from where it lay on the counter and began rummaging around in depths only possibly with extension charms.
“I have shoes-”
“Those are flats. This is the Yule Ball. Pick a pair, I’ll fix it if they aren’t the right size, do it for my sisters all the time.” Chandra began taking out pairs of high heels one by one and laying them on the counter.
“I don’t know if I can do heels and braces,” Alba insisted, blanching at the thought of trying to dance in strappy stilettos.
“Find a pair you can walk in, and that can fit with your braces. Please, Alba. Just trust me, and forgive me, but the finale is the best part. I can’t wait to see the look on your face!” Chandra was positively beaming, and Alba had to admit it was a little fun to dream.
“Those,” she said, picking a pair of wedges that seemed rather stable. “I think they’ll fit.” They didn’t. But with a few swishes of her wand, Chandra molded the curvy shoes around Alba’s braces for a snug fit, even if the pale blue plastic and white velcro clashed horribly with the whole thing.
“Alright, alright, now the dress!” Chandra was practically squealing a few minutes later when all straps, buckles, and binds were done up tight.
Just in time, Alba was standing with her eyes closed in front of the mirror, holding her breath while Chandra prepared her big finale.
“Open!” She cried.
Alba opened her eyes and gasped, catching sight of herself in the full length mirror. Her hair caught her attention first, the long locks resting nicely against the smooth fabric of her dress. She squinted in confusion, staring at her legs in the mirror.
She had ankle braces on, she knew it. They had strapped them in under the wedges, and she could feel them metal spokes pressing gently into the sides of her legs. She just couldn’t see them.
“Viola!” Chandra said triumphantly, walking around behind Alba as though she were a finished painting. “I disillusioned them,” she explained. “Simple idea, tricky to learn, but effective. I do it to my bras all the time. Haven’t quite got the hang of entire people, but I’m sure it’ll come with practise. Mum says…”
Alba was speechless for a several minutes, trying to keep tears from making tracks through her fresh powder. When she finally found words, all she could say was, “Thank you.”
“Stop looking at me like that,” she hissed to Ben, who was once again staring intently at her from his post at her side.
“No,” he refused, bending over to whisper in her ear, “you look too damn good for me to miss a minute of it.”
Alba blushed a bit, turning her head to make sure the other Champions didn’t hear him. From the thumbs up that James flashed her from behind, she was guessing he and Chandra hadn’t heard.
The moment she had been dreading was finally upon her, and Alba couldn’t find the time to worry about it anymore. She was ecstatic. With the unlikely combo of Nurse Wainscott’s hair potion and Chandra’s disillusionment, Alba felt picture perfect. Besides, it was Ben’s job to remember how the dance went. She was just following.
Ben’s head finally turned from Alba as the double doors opened, music pouring from the Great Hall.
“You doing ok?” He asked her, sweat breaking out on the palm of his hand.
“I’m never going to forget tonight,” he replied before they followed Dimitri out onto the dancefloor.
One two three, one two three… Alba intoned, trying to keep time with the music while balancing on her borrowed shoes. “It’s the hair isn’t it?” She asked him, confident there were now enough couples twirling around in colorful dress robes to not notice if they were out of time a little bit. Just a few more measures and-
“You’re beautiful, with or without. Just more… obviously so, I suppose.”
Alba laughed, no longer attempting to keep up with the waltz as more couples poured onto the dance floor. She caught sight of Chandra gazing up at James. She had somehow found enough time to get ready herself after helping Alba all afternoon. Huh, she thought, the lovely lady isn’t so bad…
“Thank you Benjamin.”
“Are you being sarcastic? Because usually my full name is reserved for the occasions when I’m in trouble for something.”
“No, I’m trying to be nice. Thank you for faux-asking me to the Yule Ball.”
“Ah, you’re welcome!” He replied enthusiastically, giving her hand a little squeeze before pulling out a chair for her. “Thank you for accepting. I was half expecting you would go to Mcgonagall saying you couldn’t dance and she probably would’ve let you off since we have a perfectly good Companion.”
“Damn it, Honeypucker, I asked your opinion, and you said it wouldn’t work!”
“Bahahaha!” He exploded with laughter. “I’ve been waiting for you to try it this entire time, and then I’d be out a date. And you’d be short one very fine dress, my lady. Oh, and a head of hair.”
“Whatever, Maude would’ve gone with you,” she said certainly, not at all regretting her misjudgement in the slightest.
“But would I have gone with Maude?” Ben asked hiking a dirty blonde eyebrow to ridiculous heights while stroking his chin.
Alba laughed, accepted his offer to get a glass of punch, and surveyed the crowd. She was very happy to be herself in that moment.
When the photographer came around, as was inevitable, she stood tall next Ben, holding his hand for a little help, and smiled widely for the camera, thinking of how good it would look on her mother’s mantle. All with a little help from her friends.
As the hours past, Alba forgot about if people were wondering about her hair, or if the disillusionment charm had begun to wear off her footwear. She was engaged in conversations with students from across the world, many of them eager to sit and talk with her about nothing in particular. Her friends danced, sang obnoxiously when Newton’s Newts came on stage, and spent the entire time smiling, their good cheer more infectious than any pox.
A little past midnight, she tugged on Ben’s shirt, “I’m about ready to head up.”
“Alright, let me grab my coat,” he yelled over the bass solo.
“It’s alright if you want to stay!”
He gave her a dirty look that roughly translated to ‘you’re raving mad’, and dashed off to find his coat as she stood, waving to James from across the room and motioning upwards to let him know she was off. He waved heartily, and Chandra turned, giving her a great smile and a little wave of her own.
“Ready then?” Ben asked, nodding to the couple as she took his offered hand. “Any way you’ll just let me carry you all the way up? I saw you start rubbing your calves two hours ago.”
“Keep clucking like that, and you really will turn into a mother hen.”
His deep chuckle was satisfying. They bantered well together. And she wouldn’t protest too much if he picked her up towards the end. But he only did that when he wanted to hold her.
The corner of Alba's mouthed sagged into a frown as she realized exactly how long it had been.