Disclaimer: Fortunately JK Rowling is not Taboo.
A/N: Phew, this chapter just got bigger and bigger, and the visit to Hogwarts isn't even done. It kept going off on tangents on me and not following my outline, but here it is. Now proofread.
"An angry mob?" Hermione said sceptically.
"Well, it was an angry mob of Slytherins," Harry said.
"And just how were you run out of Hogwarts by an angry mob of Slytherins?"
"And what about everyone else?" Fred pointed out.
"Are Ron and Ginny okay?" said George.
"Er…probably?" he said. "I was the one they wanted. I won't know for sure until I get to Sirius and call Ginny on his mirror, though."
"So why'd you come to us first?" asked Fred.
"Well, I need you're help. Hermione, you said you figured out a way around the Taboo."
"Yes, but it won't be safe to use it again for a while."
"Oh…" Harry deflated. "That could be a problem."
"Why?" she asked. "Are you still having a problem saying You-Know-Who's name? I silenced myself to be safe, but you've had all this time to practice—"
"No, no, I've got pretty good about not saying You-Know-Who's name. It's just…" Harry hesitated sheepishly. "Ron says I talk in my sleep."
Hermione's eyes widened. "Oh. Bollocks."
Fred and George exchanged an uncomfortable look. "So we need to do that again tonight," George said.
"Or else silence Harry in his sleep," Fred pointed out.
"Okay, this could be a problem," Hermione said. She thought for a minute. "There's the rings, obviously. And you probably should have sent me a message with that." Harry blushed in embarrassment. "But even with that, it'll be complicated getting everyone else back together. It might be better to go see Sirius first. You said you needed his mirror anyway. Can you take us there, Harry?"
"Er, yeah, I guess," he said. "It's a pretty long way from here, though."
"We'll take the Underground," Hermione said firmly.
Between the two of them, it didn't take very long to get to Sirius's flat. It wasn't a particularly nice flat, nor well-lived-in, but it was enough for a bachelor who didn't spend that much of his time in the muggle world anyway. Sirius had been dismayed at Harry showing up at his door and very worried when he mentioned needing to do the ritual again. He got Harry his mirror, however, and he started calling on it.
"Harry Potter," he said, since it was his own mirror he was calling.
It took some time to get an answer, but after a little while, Ginny's voice sounded from the mirror: "Harry?"
"Ginny! Thank Merlin! Is everyone alright back there?"
"Yes, we're fine, Harry," she replied. "Or we will be. No one got seriously hurt, anyway. The teachers broke up the mob a little after you left. We barricaded ourselves in Gryffindor Tower, but the teachers sealed off all the dorms anyway. They're going to decide what to do about it tomorrow morning. What about you? Did you get out okay?"
"Yeah. I caught Hermione, George, and Fred at the shop, and I'm at Sirius's place now."
"Okay, that's good."
"Yes," Sirius cut in from behind them. Harry and Hermione spun around. "So talk. What happened."
"Parkinson happened," Harry groaned.
"Parkinson?" Hermione said in surprise.
"Mm hmm," Ginny said from the mirror. "Apparently, since Malfoy's dead, Parkinson decided to take up the cause. She fights better than I expected."
Harry nodded: "She must have been training. With Dumbledore gone, everyone knows I'm the next person You-Know-Who wants dead, so all they have to do is find me and drag me to him. We all thought the teachers would keep things calm enough at Hogwarts for me to stay there, but it didn't work out so well. Parkinson whipped up a bunch of the Slytherins to try to get me right in the middle of school."
"Who?" Sirius said with a frown.
"All the boys in our year, plus Bulstrode. And some of the fifth- and seventh-years, but I don't know them that well. I guess they wanted to catch me and take me to Hogsmeade so they could hand me to the Death Eaters or something. At least, that's what Parkinson said."
"And they just attacked you in the middle of the day?" he asked.
"Yeah. I was on my way to Arithmancy, so there weren't many Gryffindors around. I wasn't looking at the Marauder's Map or anything since it was class hours, and they took me by surprise. I ran back to find Professor McGonagall—or anyone—but they cut me off."
"How did you get away?" Hermione said.
"I used your Flashbang Hex and a few other spells to make as much noise as I could to attract attention. A bunch of teachers and students came running, and some of the D.A. started hexing back, and it turned into a big battle. I slipped away with my invisibility cloak, and the teachers broke it up, but I watched them on the Marauder's Map, and they were lying in wait for me again by dinner. I knew I couldn't keep away from them all the time unless the teachers completely locked down the school."
"Which they did during the Chamber of Secrets mess," Hermione pointed out.
"Yes, but even if they did, Ginny, Ron, and I figured it'd be safer if I left. I was going to sneak out, but I tripped an alarm when I tried to go out the secret passage to Honeydukes. I forgot McGonagall sealed them all. I had to go out the main gate, and the whole school noticed so the Slytherins came after me again…So that's how I got run out by an angry mob."
"Ah. So you're a fugitive, now," Hermione said unhappily.
"Er…well, I guess. You-Know-Who still wants to kill me."
"Not just that, Harry. You're still underage, and you don't have a tutor anymore. You're technically truant."
"Ha!" Sirius barked. "Good for you, Pup; you're officially a juvenile delinquent. But Hermione's right: this means the Death Eater-controlled Ministry could legitimately send Aurors to arrest you."
"And you as his guardian, if it comes to it," Hermione pointed out. "At least if it's done the same way as the muggle world."
"Ooh, that's right. Crap. Well, I was mostly gonna stay in hiding anyway. We'll just be in hiding together, now."
"Sure," Harry said halfheartedly—more at having to go into hiding than at staying with Sirius, Hermione was sure. "The problem is the Taboo. Hermione, you said it won't be safe to use your ritual again?"
"Right," she said.
"But if Harry talks in his sleep…" Sirius said.
"Yes," she admitted. "I think we need to gather the troops again."
Hermione concluded that the fastest way to gather everyone back together again really was to use their rings: URGENT—NEED TO REJOIN LIKE EARLIER. The message would go to Septima and Cedric as well as the group they assembled before, but she was pretty sure Septima would understand her meaning, and she hadn't been in contact with Cedric at all since she'd fled to Prewett Manor with the Weasleys. Thus, it was just the ten of them again, plus Harry. There really was no time to get hold of anyone else this time. Eleven sounded like a pretty good-sized group, but it wasn't when they had no idea was You-Know-Who would throw at them.
"I'm sorry to call you all back so soon," Hermione told them when they assembled. Harry had briefly explained to them what happened. "I know we agreed it wouldn't be safe to do this ritual again for a while, but with Harry out of Hogwarts, it's more dangerous to leave it lie. Apparently, he talks in his sleep, so he's not completely reliable about not breaking the Taboo. That means either silencing him in his sleep—probably for a lot longer than I was—or doing the ritual again tonight."
"I hate to say this, it might still be safer just to silence Harry," Tonks said. "There's no way You-Know-Who won't have noticed us using the Taboo against him."
"I agree," said Bill. "It's possible he's even figured out what we were doing near the rune stones, even after we Obliviated and moved the Death Eaters. And in that case, there's a good chance he'll have wised up that the next person we do the ritual for will be Harry."
Harry blanched. Would You-Know-Who come in person, then? He'd certainly send the Death Eaters in force—enough force to fight eleven witches and wizards. "Whoa, whoa," he said. "I don't want anyone getting hurt because of me. I can be silenced like Hermione."
Hermione looked at him uncomfortably. "It would be a trade-off, Harry," she said. "You wouldn't be any less safe than I was, I suppose, but you're a bigger target. You'd have to make certain to only sleep somewhere you can't be taken by surprise. And I assume you can dispel a Silencing Charm non-verbally?" He nodded. "So…well, I wasn't really expecting this. I guess we're going to wait for now?"
"I think that's the best option," Bill said.
"I agree," said Sirius. "We don't know what's going to happen if we try it again now. Just be careful, Harry. It would only take one slip to ruin everything."
"Believe me, Sirius, I know."
"So where are you going to stay?" asked Hermione. "Just stick with Sirius for now?"
"Works for me," Sirius answered for him. "And under Fidelius, of course. You'll still be able to go out sometimes, but if the Aurors really do come after you, it might have to be in disguise or under your Cloak."
"I'll keep my ear to the ground there," Tonks said.
"Thanks. What about Valentine's Day, though?" Harry asked with a weak grin.
"Sorry, but Hogsmeade is a no-go, Pup," Sirius said. "Even if it were safe to show your face in public normally, it would be a bad idea there with the same Slytherins who tried to kidnap you today milling around. And I don't think we want Ginny to be seen on a date with a bloke who doesn't look like you."
Harry winced: "No, I guess you're right…Hermione, d'you think you could get me into the castle Friday night? You were going to start visiting Professor Vector again, weren't you?"
Hermione bit her lip and thought about it. "I was," she said. "Next Saturday. I could make it Friday night. And once you're inside, it wouldn't be hard to hide you. You've got your Cloak, and I've got my Map…Actually, where's the Marauder's Map right now?"
"Ron and Ginny are holding on to it."
"Right. Anyway, the hard part will be getting you in if they've closed all the secret passages."
"What if I just follow you under my Cloak?"
"Would that work? I would've thought…Remus, you were a Defence Professor. Do you know if there's a spell on the main doors that can detect invisibility cloaks?"
Remus shrugged noncommittally: "Yes and no. The wards can see through invisibility cloaks, or we couldn't have got them to show up on the Marauder's Map, and they could be configured to sound an alarm upon one crossing the threshold. But remember, Harry's Cloak works differently from a normal one. They'd have to configure it specifically for him, and I trust everyone in the school who would be capable of doing that."
"Oh, well, that could actually work, then. Still, it's risky."
"Yes, I'm all for young love, but there's a point where it really does make you stupid," Sirius agreed.
Harry glared at him, and Remus sent him a sceptical look, but Molly and Arthur were certainly for him playing it safe, and they said so. Harry relented and changed the subject: "Okay, but there's one other thing about Hogwarts we might need to look into. I'll need to talk to Hermione, George, and Fred about it."
"What is it?" Hermione asked.
"I'm not sure. It might be nothing. But I have a feeling it's important."
She nodded. She could tell it was something he didn't want to tell the rest of the Order, and that meant it probably was important. She looked around and asked, "Sirius, Arthur, would it be okay if Harry stays at Prewett Manor tonight, then. I think he's right: we need to talk soon."
"Yes, I think that will be fine," Sirius said. "Just don't forget the Silencing Charm."
"We'll be happy to have you, Harry," Arthur agreed, "and I'll handle Muriel if there's a problem. Alright? If there's nothing else, we should be going."
Harry met with Hermione and the Twins as soon as they could get some time alone. "So, what's the trouble at Hogwarts, Harry?" Fred asked him. "You know, besides the obvious?"
"Okay, I noticed something when we had the first D.A. meeting of the term," he said. "I've been wanting to ask you guys, how many people actually knew how the Room of Requirement worked? Not just where it was, but how to set it and open it?"
Hermione opened her mouth to answer, but she closed it again when she realised what Harry already had: the list wasn't as long as she thought—namely, it wasn't everyone by now. She looked to George and Fred, and they looked similarly thoughtful. "Now that I think about it…" she said. "There was you, me, all the Weasleys. Georgina. Um…I might have told Septima at some point. Cedric knew…But I think that's it. I showed other people the Room, but I didn't actually tell them how it worked—Oh, Umbridge might have known. I don't know how much the elves told her."
Harry frowned: "Umbridge? Do you think she could have told Malfoy?"
"Malfoy?" she said in surprise. "Well, she certainly could have, but I don't see what her motive would have been. Why?"
"Remember when we were following Malfoy on your Map last term?" he said. "He was practically living in the Room of Requirement. He must have known how to get in somehow. And he knew how to keep everyone else out."
"Oh," she said.
"Oh," George and Fred agreed.
"'I need a place to hide that will keep everyone else out,' maybe?" she suggested.
"Maybe, but not many people would know to do that," Harry said.
"Right…Well, it's complicated. At the end of the day, it's not an actual secret," Hermione pointed out. "It's not being kept from anyone. The elves would've told anyone who asked. It's just that no one in the school paid attention to the elves."
"Hm, it's still weird, though," George said. "It's secret enough that we kept the D.A. a secret in there, but lots of people find it. We found it hiding from Filch once before, and we know lots of people hide stuff in there."
"But I don't think many people figure out how it actually works," Fred pointed out. "We sure didn't, even when we went back and looked again."
They fell silent, trying to process this. There was enough ambiguity that Malfoy could have got the information from somewhere else or even have figured it out for himself, although it was unlikely. But it still seemed suspicious.
Suddenly, Harry froze, and his eyes grew to the size of saucers.
"Harry? What's wrong?" Hermione said.
"Oh my God," he whispered. "Hide."
"If you wanted to hide something in Hogwarts so that no one would ever find it unless you knew exactly what to look for, and where and how to look for it, where would you put it?"
Hermione's eyes bugged out too, and so did the Twins': "Holy cricket. You think You-Know-Who hid a horcrux there?"
"It could be. Where else in Hogwarts would be as good a hiding place? And it would explain how Malfoy knew how to get in there: You-Know-Who told him."
"Yes, it would…but then, what was Malfoy doing in there? You-Know-Who wouldn't have told him about his horcrux, would he."
"I doubt it. Not without a really good reason, and there wouldn't've been any reason for Malfoy to spend that long in there. I don't know what he was doing, though."
"So you need to get Bill to check out the Room, then?" said George.
"Yes," Hermione said. "Harry's right. I still think the Chamber of Secrets would've been more secure, but I can't think of anyplace else in Hogwarts that would be as safe…Oh…unless You-Know-Who asked for a room that only he could get into. That could be a problem."
"Can the Room shut everyone out like that?" George asked.
"Or can Bill cursebreak his way through it?" Fred added.
"I don't know—to either. It's almost certainly possible to do from the anchor stones, but that would be hard and time-consuming. We should at least check and see if we can get into the Room directly, though. And I think that'll be a good excuse to get you into the castle on Friday, Harry."
Friday came around, and after a lunch date with George, Hermione met up with Bill and Harry in order to get them into the castle and also take care of a bunch of other stuff she needed to handle. She was actually staying the night, just like old times—the old times of two months ago, anyway. Harry would be staying too, under somewhat different circumstances, and Bill would be staying in a guest room, just to round things out.
Hermione and Bill walked into Hogwarts openly that afternoon, with Harry going under his invisibility cloak between them. They wouldn't have a lot of time to investigate that day. Harry wanted to spend the evening with Ginny, and Hermione had her own friends to see. But Bill being there to "investigate the curse" gave her a pretext to come that afternoon instead of the next morning, since she was still studying Runes under him. Hermione checked the Mathemagician's Map to make sure the coast was clear, and they made their way to the Room of Requirement straightaway.
"So this is the Room," Hermione told Bill, motioning to the blank stretch of wall. "The way to open it is to walk past it three times whilst thinking about what you need. So if you think, 'We need a place to practice defensive magic,' it'll turn into the D.A. training room."
"I see. Interesting," Bill said. "So if I think, 'I need to find a horcrux'…?"
"Well, You-Know-Who is probably smarter than that, but in principle, yes, that's the idea."
"Might as well try it, though," Harry said. He proceeded to walk down the corridor three times, but no door appeared. "Nope. I guess not," he said.
"Mm, Hermione's right," Bill said. "You-Know-Who is smarter than that. We can try a few variations, but we'll probably have to unravel the enchantments on the Room instead. Maybe…'I need a place to hide a horcrux?' Maybe if we ask for something more generic, it'll create the same room every time." He walked the corridor for himself, slowly, both trying to get used to the idea of how it worked and feel out the magic, but nothing happened. "Well, I didn't think so. That's if there's even one here. We might be on a wild niffler chase."
"Wait, Bill," Hermione stopped him. "You specifically thought, 'I need a place to hide a horcrux?'"
"But if there's no horcrux in there, the Room would have no reason to lock that command out."
Harry gasped: "Bloody hell, I was right! You-Know-Who must have hidden it here! The Room wouldn't care about that otherwise."
The three of them redoubled their efforts, trying any combination of words they could think of to try to reveal the horcrux's hiding place. Bill kept a lookout for any glimmer of magic that would show they were on the right track, but they ultimately found nothing. You-Know-Who was too many steps ahead of them.
"The Room is working, isn't it?" Bill asked.
"It should be," said Harry. "We were still using it for D.A. meetings up till last week."
Hermione quickly set the Room to the D.A. training room, and Bill started running his wand all over it inside and out. "Amazing," he muttered. "This is incredible magic. It must have been built by Rowena Ravenclaw herself. I could learn so much from this."
"Does that include how to find the horcrux?" Harry demanded.
"Unfortunately not. But if we go down and scour the anchor stones, we should be able to find the runes that govern it, and then I can go to work."
"Right. Before we do that, do you think we can try to find out what Malfoy was up to in here?" he asked. "I should've thought to do that sooner."
"Sure, if you like. I don't know how much it will matter now, though."
"I'm just worried about what other plans he might have been working on. He certainly didn't plan to kill Dumbledore the way he did." He walked back and forth three times, but no door appeared.
"What were you thinking?" asked Hermione.
"'I need to see what Draco Malfoy was doing in here.'"
"Well, that's not exactly a place, is it?"
"No, I guess not. Let's try…'I need the place where Draco Malfoy was coming secretly.'" However, that didn't produce a door either. "Oh, come off it," he argued with the wall. "That was a clear instruction."
Hermione rolled her eyes, but tried one of her own: We need the room that the Room became for Draco Malfoy. This didn't yield results either, though, and after they tried a couple more variations, the Room was as stubborn as ever.
"It's no good, Harry," Bill said. "You-Know-Who probably told Malfoy how to lock the Room, too."
"I'm surprised it's still doing that even after he's dead," Harry replied.
"It's not that surprising," said Hermione. "A computer doesn't care if it's owner is alive or dead. If you lose the password to one, you can't get it back without special tools—disassemble it and read it off the hard drive or something."
Bill shook his head in confusion: "I don't know what that means, but I'm not surprised the Room remembers whatever orders are given to it. Come on, we'll have to figure it out from the anchor stones." He turned to go, but Harry stopped him.
"Hang on, let me try one more thing for the horcrux first," he said. Bill stopped and waited as he concentrated and walked past the invisible door three times. Then, to their amazement, an ornate door appeared in the wall. He stopped and stared himself. "Guys…I think it worked."
Hermione and Bill were staring at him in amazement. "How?" Hermione gasped. "How did you do that?"
Harry smiled a slightly bewildered smile: "I just thought, 'I need the place where everything is hidden.'"
Her jaw dropped. "That's it?!" she exclaimed. "All you had to do was ask for root access?! What kind of dumb security system is that? That's the complete opposite of a secure system."
"Well, to be fair, I don't think it was designed as a secure system," Bill pointed out.
Hermione couldn't refute that. After all, Rowena Ravenclaw probably hadn't intended the Room as a secret chamber like Salazar Slytherin's opus. Rather more likely, it was a configurable workspace—one that could house multiple laboratories at once and be sealed against busybodies and troublemakers, but not kept hidden from the world. That was what Hermione would have done, after all. Only, its secrets had been lost somewhere along the way. Why or how was anyone's guess.
"Well, let's check it out," Harry said. He opened the door and froze. "Oh…"
Hermione poked her head in under Harry's and was stunned by what she saw. "Bloody hell, 'oh' is right."
Bill looked too: "Merlin's saggy bollocks."
The room that the Room of Requirement had become was the size of a large cathedral. Hermione thought it might well have been the largest single enclosed room in the world when Hogwarts was built. It was two or three times the size of the Great Hall and absolutely filled with junk—some of it hundreds of years old, in piles stretching all the way up to the rafters. By volume, most of it was broken or discarded furniture, and most of that, she realised, was probably put here by the house elves, wanting to keep the school clean. Someone needed to talk to them about long-term planning, she thought idly. If even a fraction of this were repaired, the castle could be restocked with furniture for a generation.
But there was much more. A huge amount of the contents of the room were clearly student possessions, some of them contraband, and some just lost. A few of what she recognised as Winged Catapults and Fanged Frisbees hovered listlessly over the piles of rubble while pixies and doxies flitted around them. No doubt many more of all of the above were lying dead on the floor. There were piles of books—enough to add a whole new annex to the library—many of which were probably banned and could possibly help her with her horcrux research. There was clothing, jewelry, weapons, artifacts, expired potions that looked dangerous to touch, and even things that looked worryingly like dragon eggshells.
She couldn't believe she'd never seen this version of the Room before. She knew the elves used the Room for storage, and she'd even called specific items out of storage, but she'd never thought to look at was the actual storage space looked like.
"My God," she whispered. "Students must have been finding this Room practically every day and hiding things here for the past thousand years. I can't believe You-Know-Who didn't think anyone else would figure it out, even if most of them never found it again."
"Aside from the fact that it would take forever to find anything in here," Bill said.
"But you can find it, right?" Harry asked.
"Yes, I can find it, but it'll take time. More time than we have tonight, and that's if it's in here."
"If the Room interpreted Harry's command literally, it'll be in here," Hermione said firmly, but he was right. She did some quick mental maths and decided that finding anything in here would be roughly equivalent to finding one particular item in a shopping mall that had been hit by a hurricane. The only reason it wouldn't be completely intractable was that Bill could use dark magic detection spells, and that only meant they could narrow it down and sift through thousands of items rather than hundreds of thousands.
"Well, lets get to work," Bill said.
They made a non-negligible dent by dinner time—or rather Bill did, since Harry and Hermione didn't know enough dark detection spells to sort through this much of a magical mess. It was enough that Hermione was confident they could find the horcrux by the end of the term, even if they only came in once a week. In the meantime, Hermione sifted through the books, looking for any that were in a good enough condition to use and looked like they would be useful to her research. It galled her to see books treated like this, but she had to prioritise right now. She put the ones that were useful to her in her expanded handbag.
After some consideration, they decided to take dinner in the kitchens. Hermione could have got away with going to the Great Hall, but Harry and Bill couldn't, and she didn't want to stir up any trouble. The elves were naturally happy to see her and were greatly relieved that the Boy-Who-Lived was alright and sneaking around with no trouble. They didn't say what they were doing at Hogwarts, of course, and the elves didn't pry. One of the things they were best at was discretion, after all.
One notable thing did happen during their dinner, though. Sonya came up to Hermione, looking very nervous. The young, blond elf had cut her hair short again, like when Hermione had first met her, and had an air of uncertainty about her.
"Excuse me, Miss Hermione. Could you call Dobby for me, please?" she said.
"Of course, Sonya," she said. "Dobby?"
Dobby appeared with a pop, and Sonya quickly ran to him and kissed him. Hermione knew the two elves had been dating—or whatever it was house elves called dating—for nearly a year, but she hadn't pried into their relationship or even really seen them together. She was surprised how much Dobby's nose could bend, which was the only way they could make the kiss work.
"I needs to talk to you alone, Dobby," Sonya said quietly. Dobby looked up at Hermione, who nodded quickly, and they hurried off together.
"What was that about?" Bill asked.
"No idea," Hermione said. "Dobby's only my employee. His private life isn't my business."
"That still seems weird to me, but whatever works for you, I guess."
It wasn't until they finished dinner that Dobby and Sonya came back. Sonya still looked nervous, and Dobby was leading her by the hand.
"Is something wrong?" Hermione asked them.
"Nothing is wrong, Miss Hermione," Dobby said. "But Sonya needs to talk to Professor McGonagall."
"Um…okay," she said. "We were just finishing here. We can go now if you want."
"I…I would like that, Hermione," Sonya said quietly.
Using the Mathemagician's Map to navigate around any troublemakers again, Hermione led the elves up to the Headmistress's Office. She still didn't know what was happening, but if Sonya needed help, she would give it to her. "Please tell Professor McGonagall that Hermione Granger is here to see her," she told the gargoyle, and a minute later, it stepped aside, allowing them to climb up the stairs.
Professor McGonagall had kept the more austere setting that she had turned Dumbledore's office into. It was more in line with her character compared with Dumbledore's flamboyant personality, Hermione thought. "Good evening, Miss Granger," she said when she saw her. "How can I help you."
"Actually, ma'am, one of your elves wanted to talk to you," Hermione said.
McGonagall leaned over her desk to see the elves and conjured two stools for them to sit on.
"I believe you know Dobby, ma'am," Hermione reintroduced them. "And you might remember this is Sonya. She's been my friend since first year, and she's also Dobby's girlfriend."
"Yes, I believe so," the Headmistress replied. "Sonnitt, I believe it was? Yes, I remember, although I didn't know you were in a relationship. What did you need to tell me."
Sonya took a deep breath. "Professor McGonagall, ma'am…" she said haltingly. "Sonnitt…I…" She stopped and looked to Dobby. He squeezed her hand encouragingly. "I have decided…I wants to be free, ma'am," she squeaked very fast.
Hermione's eyes widened. She almost couldn't believe her ears. Sonya wanted to be free? For years, she'd been hoping that Dobby quietly working with the castle elves, setting an example for them, would inspire other elves to aspire to freedom, but she'd long since given up on actually seeing it happen. Now, it finally worked. What had changed? Was it just because they were together now?
McGonagall's mouth dropped open. "I—excuse me, this hasn't ever happened since I've been a professor. Ah…you don't have to answer, Sonnitt, but may I ask why?"
Sonya looked down and collected herself: "Last year, ma'am, we elves had to obey Professor Umbridge when she was made the fake Headmistress, even though…even though…" She gazed at McGonagall expectantly.
"Speak freely, Sonnitt. I'm sure I could say worse about her than you could," McGonagall said.
"Even though we knew she was a bad mistress, ma'am," Sonya whispered. "You was still able to overrule her, but we couldn't always go to you. We hads to rat out Hermione and her friends to Professor Umbridge, and I almost wasn't able to warn her. Elves should not have to hurt their friends, ma'am. I do not ever wants that to happen again, ma'am, and now that He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named is strong again, I am scared what will happen."
"Oh my," Hermione said. "You're doing this for me, Sonya?"
"That is being one reason, Hermione," Sonya said, blushing a little. "Also, Dobby is very happy being free and working for…for money. He has told me a lot about it and why it is better, and why it should not be a shame on an elf. Not having to worry about bad masters is just one of the reasons."
Hermione thought she might cry. "Oh, Sonya," she said, and she hugged the little elf, who squeaked in surprise. "I fully support your decision, you know—as long as you're really doing it for yourself. I'll even see if I can find someone who's willing to pay you to work." Even as she said it, the germ of an idea began to form in her mind. Her first thought was Bill and Fleur or George and Fred, but as much as Molly appreciated having Dobby around at Prewett Manor, she suspected the Weasleys would be too proud to hire a domestic worker. No, the people to go to for actually paying an elf would be the muggle-borns—muggle-borns who could also most use an elf in these dangerous times, and from that perspective, the choice was obvious.
"You make a very well reasoned argument, Sonnitt," McGonagall spoke up. "Professor Dumbledore would have been proud." Sonya squeaked and nodded tearfully. "And, I might add, if other options don't work for you, I would be happy to hire you back for pay, just as Dumbledore arranged with Miss Granger for Dobby's work."
"Thank you, ma'am," Sonya said.
"So you are certain you want to free?" she asked, to be clear. Sonya nodded again. "Very well." Professor McGonagall was wearing something like a light jumper over her robes. She removed this and shrunk it down to Sonya's size and handed it to her. At a nudge from Dobby, Sonya reached out with trembling hands and accepted it. "Sonnitt, I release you from service to Hogwarts," McGonagall said. "Go, and do as you will."
Sonya started crying. Hermione couldn't tell if it was from joy, fear, or both, but Dobby comforted her and helped her put the jumper on. She ran her small fingers over it reverently. It must be strange, Hermione thought. She'd never really thought about it when she first hired Dobby, but the elf had literally never worn normal clothes in her life, and she had probably never wanted to for most of it. It wouldn't surprise her if she found them irritating or constricting. Right now, though, she looked so overwhelmed she might faint, and Dobby had to help her stand up.
"Dobby, take care of her however you need to," Hermione said, and to McGonagall, she added, "Thank you for that, Professor."
"No trouble at all, Miss Granger. As irregular as it is, Hogwarts policy is to free any elf who wants it. I do hope you'll find a good place for her."
"Don't worry, ma'am. I have a few ideas."
That encounter gave Hermione one more errand to run that night, but there was still only one person she needed to visit from Ravenclaw. The rest were all in Gryffindor Tower, to which Ginny had given her and Harry the password. Luckily, it wasn't curfew yet, and she found Luna Lovegood in a surprisingly normal place: the library. Even as a Ravenclaw, that was more surprising that it ought to be for her.
"Hello, Hermione. How are you this evening?" she said when she saw her, as if nothing were out of the ordinary about Hermione being in the castle.
"As well as I can be, Luna. Yourself?"
"It's not as happy here since Professor Dumbledore died, but I'm getting by. The D.A. is still very enjoyable. Did you need to talk to me about something?"
"Er, yes. There's something I need to give you. But not here. Can we go someplace more private?"
"Of course, Hermione."
Hermione led her up to the Room of Requirement, which wasn't too far out of the way from the library. There, she retrieved one of her rings and handed it to Luna. "Here, I want you to have this," she said.
Luna's eyes widened comically as she looked at the ring. "Why Hermione, this is so sudden," she said, sounding completely amazed. "I had no idea you felt that way about me. But you know we can't be together. You couldn't do that to George, and even if you weren't with him, you're too late. My heart belongs to someone else."
Hermione gaped at the younger girl, her brain derailed. Luna sounded totally serious, but seeing as this was Luna, she had no idea whether she was actually serious or not, and—oddly completely orthogonal to that—she had no idea whether to burst out laughing or not.
However, Luna solved that problem for her when she burst out laughing herself in loud peals that sounded almost like music. "You—you should have seen your face, Hermione!" she gasped.
"How…? When did you learn to prank like that, Luna?" she said in shock.
"Oh, I've picked up things watching the Weasley Twins and others over the years. I'm surprised you didn't see that coming, having George as a boyfriend."
Hermione shook her head: "I would have expected it from a lot of people, but not from you…Say, your heart belongs to someone else?" she grinned. "Who's the lucky boy?"
Luna blushed lightly, but she answered, "Neville, of course. He's a very nice, sweet boy, and stronger than he looks…But enough about me. Clearly, there's something important about that ring. What is it?"
"Right. It's like the D.A. galleons, except you can send messages back that go direct to me. And I've been more selective about who I give them to. I've only given them to people I completely trust who can form the backbone of a resistance movement if it comes to it. And yes, I will be giving one to Neville, too."
"Oh. That's very thoughtful of you Hermione. I'm glad you trust me with this. How do I send messages."
"It uses something called a tap code. It's very easy to remember…"
Once Hermione explained to Luna how the ring worked, she climbed up to Gryffindor Tower and slipped in. After the initial surprise at her visit wore off, her old house accepted her back as a guest. She quickly sought out Neville, Ron, and Ginny and gave them their rings. Predictably, Ron was being saccharine with Parvati, and Ginny was being almost as saccharine with Harry, but she didn't mind too much. Once that was taken care of, she sought ought the last pair of people on her list—not for rings, but for another pressing issue.
"Colin, Dennis," she said.
"Hi, Hermione," Colin Creevey greeted her excitedly. "How've you been?"
"Busy. Long story. How about you?"
"Not too bad. It was scary when Harry got chased out last week, though, but it's calmed down since then."
"Ron and Ginny are keeping up the D.A., so that's good," Dennis added. "Is Harry gonna be back a lot?"
"Probably not," Hermione said. "It's harder to sneak in now. I only brought him today because of a special assignment Dumbledore left us. But I have something else to talk to you about," she added before they could interrogate her on that. "I haven't really been keeping track. How much money are you making with Creevey Bros. Pictures?"
Colin and Dennis glanced at each other. "Quite a bit," said Colin. "I know we haven't really been able to send you your dividends regularly with the security going on. If you need to collect—"
"No, no, I'm not worried about that. I've got more than that coming in from other sources. I'm just asking how the business is going."
"Oh, pretty good, actually. Our photo-essays on the Triwizard Tournament got a lot of attention, and people like being able to turn Omniocular recordings into photos."
"Kinda took folks a while to catch on, but now, we don't have time to take all the orders with school," Dennis said.
Hermione grinned. That was even better than she'd expected. "So you have enough money to hire a new employee?"
"An employee?" they said in unison. "That'd be great," Colin continued, "but how can we hire someone while we're still in school. We don't have a shop or anything."
"I happen to know a newly-freed house elf who's in need of a job," she said. "I figured as muggle-borns, you'd be better people to ask to actually pay an elf, an she can help protect you from Death Eaters in an emergency. She doesn't know anything about photography yet, I admit, but she's bright and should be a quick study. And she'll work for a galleon a week plus room and board."
Colin's and Dennis's eyes widened. "A galleon a week?" Dennis exclaimed. "How do elves work so cheap?"
"They're not used to having money. And truth be told, they don't really need much. So what do you think? Will that work for you?"
"Yeah, definitely," Colin said. "If she's good with it. It'd be great to have someone to do the work. We'll have time to try new stuff like…I dunno, films or something. So can we meet her? If we're doing this properly, we should probably give her an interview or something."
Hermione chuckled and called her: "Sonya?"
"And…she's not tied to anyone who can call her, is she?" She'd nearly forgotten that Dobby needed a special trace to respond to her call. "Um…let's see if this works. Dobby and Sonya?"
That apparently got the message across to Dobby, or else he was anticipating her will because both elves popped into the room in front of her. Sonya still looked singularly odd wearing Professor McGonagall's jumper over her Hogwarts tea towel, and she still looked unsure of herself. "Yes, Miss Hermione?" Dobby asked.
"Sonya, I told you I had an idea of someone you could work for. These are Colin and Dennis Creevey. They're muggle-born, so they won't mind paying an elf, and they could use an extra pair of hands for their business. Colin, Dennis, this is Sonya. She's been my friend for several years, and I can testify that she's willing to go above and beyond for her friends. I'll let you talk things over, and if you decide to hire her, I'll draw up a contract for you tomorrow based on Dobby's."
"Great. Thanks, Hermione," Colin said.
"Yes, thank you, Hermione," Sonya said with tears in her eyes.
Wearily, Hermione trudged up the stairs to the sixth-year girls' dorm. While she could have slept in the Room of Requirement again, she was already in the Tower, and she thought it would be nice to join her old roommates again for old times' sake.
"Hermione! It's so good to see you!" Lavender squealed when she saw her and hugged her enthusiastically. "It's been so long. You're hardly ever around anymore. How have you been?"
"Oh, I've been getting by, Lav. It's been a hard year. I'm—" She stopped when she saw the room. There were only four beds.
"Sorry, Hermione. You're not enrolled anymore. We don't have a bed for you."
"It's fine, Lavender. I can just call…hmm…" Dobby and Sonya were out so… "Tilly?"
"Or…I'm the one who's not tied into the wards anymore," she said. She briefly wondered if she could rig the Mathemagician's Map to call elves, but that was a project for another day. "Lav, could you call an elf named Tilly for me?"
Pop! "What can I help you with, miss—" The grey-haired elf stopped when she saw Hermione. "Hermione Granger!" she squeaked angrily. "You has led my granddaughter astray into f-f-freedom!" She punctuated each word by poking Hermione in the stomach, pushing her back towards the wall.
"Oi! Now just a minute, Tilly," she said indignantly while her former roommates looked on in surprise. "Sonya made her decision on her own, and for good reasons. I've barely even talked to her since I left Hogwarts. Besides, you know she's always been a rebel."
"You allows Dobby to date her," Tilly snapped. Lavender and Parvati gasped excitedly.
"Dobby is my paid employee, Tilly. I don't have the authority to forbid him from dating anyone even if I wanted to."
"You and Dobby is corrupting influences—"
"I'm not going to apologise for doing what I believe to be the right thing, Tilly. I just wanted to ask if it was possible to bring a spare bed in here for the night.
Tilly crossed her arms. "Elves is not needing to obey you now you is not a student," she sniffed.
Hermione sighed heavily and looked up at Lavender expectantly. Lavender got the hint and said, "Er, Tilly, could you bring a spare bed in here for Hermione, please?"
Tilly hesitated with indecision, but then, her resolve returned. "No, Miss Brown," she said. "Hogwarts rules says students is not to have guests in the dorms." And then, she popped away without another word.
"Wow, Tilly must be really angry," Hermione said.
"Hermione," Lavender gasped worriedly, "do you realise what just happened? A house elf just disobeyed us!"
"No, she just interpreted her orders in a way that she didn't have to do anything for me. She technically wasn't out of line. Sorry for the house elf soap opera, Lavender. I'll just go."
"Nonsense, Hermione," Lavender said. "We can make do."
"You can have my bed," Sally-Anne spoke up. "I'll kip with Lily."
Hermione glanced between Sally-Anne and her girlfriend. "I'm…not sure that would be appropriate," she said awkwardly.
Sally-Anne laughed: "We share a dorm, Hermione. It's not like the professors can stop us. Anyway, it's the least I can do after everything you've done for me."
"Well, alright…" she agreed. She supposed it was already halfway to being a sleepover as it was.
"So, how did you get in a fight with a house elf?" asked Parvati.
Hermione smiled: "It's like Tilly said: I finally corrupted another elf enough to want to be freed…"