The next morning, Steven sat nervously in the common room waiting for Rina to come downstairs. When she finally did, he stood up too quickly and all the blood rushed to his head. He was a little woozy from lack of sleep.
Rina saw him and headed over, stretching. "Wotcha, Steve. What you doin' up at this hour? It's five in the morning."
Steven paused. He hadn't realized it was that early. "I.. I could ask you the same thing."
Rina shrugged. "Mornin's the best time-a day. Might as well stretch it a bit longer. No one to bother you, ya know…"
"Right. I actually have a question for you. That's why I'm up so early. Do you have plans for Christmas?"
"Plans for Christmas? I'll 'ave the whole bleedin' castle to meself, won't I? No limits of what to do."
"I guess not… I was actually wondering if you'd like to stay with me and my family for the holidays."
Rina snorted out a laugh. "Ha! With you? We're not that close, love." She started heading to the common room door, then paused. "That's awfully nice of you to offer though. No one's ever asked me over before."
Steven took a step closer to her. "Why don't you come then?"
Rina shrugged. "Got my own things to do, don't I? Later, Steve."
She saluted at Steven and headed out the door. Steven sank back down onto the couch, his legs and eyelids heavy. He was exhausted. After a few minutes on the couch, he drug himself back up the stairs to his dormitory and flopped onto the bed, asleep before he hit the pillow.
After Steven woke up from a long nap, he headed down to the Great Hall. He had slept through breakfast, and lunch was underway, with students drifting in and out in between exams. Steven had finished his last one yesterday, but some students still had exams scheduled for the next two days. He took a seat and was just piling a sandwich high with tomatoes and salami when he saw Tom across the room. Steven immediately picked up his plate and headed over to sit with him. He stood behind Tom and cleared his throat suggestively. Tom glanced behind him.
"Hi Tom. I was just wondering… could I sit with you?"
"Of course." Tom shifted over to make a space for Steven.
"Thanks." Steven sat down a little awkwardly, then they both started eating their lunch in silence.
"I… I feel like I should say sorry, Tom. Things have been really busy, and I haven't seen you very much lately."
Tom waved his hand. "It's nothing. I'm the one at fault for being distant. Also, I wanted to speak with you anyway. I feel I need to apologize for that business with Miss Black on the Owlery staircase."
"Oh. That." Steven fidgeted with his napkin.
"I know that she has no love for you, or Muggle-borns generally. It's a bit of a trait of Slytherin house. You mustn't take it personally."
"Hm. It feels personal though."
"Speaking of Miss Black though, after that… situation, she's started complaining that she can never find matches for her socks. I don't know why it perturbs her so much. She's saying that Mudbloods are stealing her socks, which is absolutely ridiculous."
Steven gave a small smile. "Maybe it's karma. The universe could be getting back at her for being nasty to people."
They both gave a small chuckle, and went back to their lunch.
"So… what were you doing with Walburga?" asked Steven.
Tom shrugged. "Oh, you know, we're in the same house. We run into each other sometimes."
Steven nodded. He listened to the giant fireplace across from them crackle.
"I actually did have a question for you, Tom."
Tom looked up and raised his eyebrows.
"I wondered if you'd like to come with me for the holidays. You know, spend Christmas with my family. If you don't have any other plans."
Steven took a big bite of his sandwich while Tom pondered the offer.
"Well, it is true that I don't have anywhere else to go." Tom picked some crumbs off the table. "Why not? Yes, I'll come with you. If that's quite alright with your parents."
"I'll send them a letter right now!" Steven dashed out of the Great Hall to start writing, and almost ran into Walburga, who was complaining to her friend about the cold shower she'd had that morning. Steven took a small guilty pleasure in her unpleasant morning and headed down to the dungeons.
On his way to the Hufflepuff common room, he stopped by the kitchens to say goodbye to the house elves for the holidays. They were as excited to see him as always, and showed him a small tree that they had set up. Nibbs brought his wife and son out to say hello; his son had made a full recovery and showed Steven all the pictures he had drawn in the last week. Some of them were actually really impressive, it looked like Tibbs had spent a lot of time on them. Steven told Tibbs that he he could grow up to be a great artist someday, and Nibbs glowed with pride.
"The first house elf artist that all wizards would be knowing!" smiled his mother.
Steven thought for a moment. "Are there not any famous house elf artists?"
Nibbs laughed. "Not by wizards there isn't! But sometimes-"
One of the older house elves stepped on Nibb's foot, and raised an eyebrow suggestively, but it was too late.
"Sometimes," a different house elf chimed in, "we makes our own fun!"
Another house elf ran into a small hallway, and came back with a painting as large as itself.
"It's not much…" the house elf said, "but Knobs made this his-self."
It was a beautiful landscape painting of Hogwarts at sunset.
"And this-" said another house elf, pulling out another, "is Polly's."
A caricature of Walberga Black done in a fancy portrait style made Steven snort with laughter and cover his mouth. The nose was huge, and she had tiny eyes on a head that was too big for her body.
Polly piped up. "Polly painted Miss Black that way because Miss Black's head is full of hot air."
Steven couldn't hold in his laughter and let out a huge guffaw. He fell off his chair he was laughing so hard, and had to take a few minutes to contain himself.
"Speaking of Walberga," said Steven between giggles, wiping a tear from his eye, "is that you who have been taking all the matches to her socks?"
Some of the house elves smiled knowingly.
"Master Steven, we don't know nothing about missing socks!" one said, with over-innocent wide eyes.
"What about cold showers?"
Nipsy piped up. "That was the whole castle, sir. 'Twas a cold morning, it was."
The other house elves nodded seriously.
"Well, if any of you are doing anything sneaky or mean to Miss Black, you really shouldn't. She's a person just like any of us."
"But a mean person!"
"Unfair to all!"
Steven tried to interject. "Yes, yes I know. But-"
"She's been waited on hand and foot-"
"-the most ungrateful-"
"It's not right-"
"Everyone! Quiet down!" cried Steven.
The room fell silent.
"I know that she's mean, and nasty, and all those things. But if we are mean and nasty to her, we become just as nasty. It might make us happy for a minute, but it does nothing to change anything."
The house elves were quiet.
"But then, Master Steven, how does we change things?"
Steven was quiet. "I… I don't know."
The room was quiet again. Then the old house elf with droopy ears beckoned Steven over. He had never talked to Steven before.
"Master Steven," he said in a quaky voice, "does you know how house elves came to be?"
Steven shook his head. The old house elf motioned for him to sit down with a walking stick, and all the other house elves whispered and sat down as well.
"In the beginning," the old elf began, "house elves were not house elves at all. We was a tribe of sprites, in wizard language. We was happy, and lived with a Snallygaster. The big strong snallygaster would bring us food, while we would help with what she needed. We was just little sprites, and it would have been silly for us to just wander about, what with the wampus and hidebehinds and all-"
"Wampus? So wait, you're from America?"
The old elf banged his walking stick, and said nothing.
Steven winced. "Sorry. Please tell more of the story."
"As I be saying, it would be silly to wander, what with the wampus and hidebehinds and all. So the snallygaster wandered for us, and we helped baby snallygasters grow. We was very happy." The old elf took a deep breath. "But then one day, our snallygaster didn't come back. We wanted to find her, even with the wampus and hidebehinds and all out there. We followed her tracks, then we found the blood." He gulped. "And then we followed the dragging marks. The marks took us to big wooden walls with a big wooden door. And so we banged on the door, crying, 'Please, please give us our snallygaster! She has seven babies at home who are all crying for her!' We cried all the night. And then the doors opened, and we saw our beautiful snallygaster… She… she had her heart cut out, and her skin was gone. We fell down on our knees, and cried some more. Our snallygaster was gone…'
'The humans that opened the doors were wizards. They had wands. They said that snallygasters were very valuable and wanted us to tell us where her seven babies be. But we see what they did to our snallygaster and we wouldn't tell. The wizards grabbed our necks, and held us up, and said they would kill us all if we didn't tell. But then, Teimh, the cleverest and kindest of us, had an idea. Teimh knew we could not offer the sweet snallygasters for our lives, but we could be giving our lives for our lives. She offered to the wizards our lives instead of the snallygasters. That is saying, that we and our children and our children's children would forever serve the wizards if they would kill no more snallygasters. The wizards be seeing how many of us there be, and see that it maybe be a better idea to have help for free than dead snallygasters. So all us elves made a vow with the wizards, an Unbreakable Promise, that we would serve the wizards and do whatever they ask unless they be giving us a token saying we can go. Those wizards did make a Vow too, not to kill any more snallygasters. So they take us away, bring us to other wizards, and soon we all be living in houses with wizards.'
'And that," ended the old house elf as he stood up, "is why things must not be changing. If things be changing, we be dying. Can't be breaking the Unbreakable Promise. Everything is not so very happy, but we and our snallygaster babies be alive."
The room was quiet. Many of the house elves were crying over the story of the snallygaster. Some were nodding in approval.
"Besides," he continued, "things not so bad for Hogwarts elves. We be happy here, with house elf families, and paintings, and Christmas trees. There be nasty and mean wizards everywhere. But we made a promise. And there's no breaking of promises."