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“Mint Humbugs”

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“Mint Humbugs.”

Dobby let out a smothered whimper as the terrifying gargoyle statue sprung into life at the sound of its password. Its movement summoned a grinding from deep within the heart of the castle as the figure revolved upward revealing circular stairs leading to the headmaster’s office. Dobby fought against his instinct to shield his eyes from the sight of the gargoyle ‘flying’ above him.

“Would you mind if I accompanied you further? I’ve business with the headmaster myself.”

Dobby winced at being spoken to directly by a professor. Professor McGonagall had met Dobby after he had asked a friendly cat for assistance in finding the headmaster’s office. Dobby had not expected the front door of the castle to be unlocked, but the door had swung open easily for him when he had knocked.

Dobby had initially thought to wait for someone to answer his timid knocks at the door. He had been scared to enter the castle uninvited, but it had started to snow. He had promised himself that he would only spend a moment inside until he could feel his toes, but had lost track of time warming himself while perched on a torch in the entryway. It wasn’t until he was joined by a friendly cat that he remembered why he was at Hogwarts at all.

The cat hadn’t been as helpful as Dobby had anticipated. It simply looked at him and left as soon as he was done talking. Dobby had heard about the great Hogwarts school of Witchcraft and Wizardry. He had assumed that the cat was magical enough to give directions. Fortunately, immediately after the cat had left he had found Madam Professor McGonagall who had kindly agreed to show him the headmaster’s office. Dobby still didn’t know how to react when he was directly addressed by one such as her.

“Of course Madam Witch Professor McGonagall. Dobby would be quite happy to wait until you are done with the headmaster. Dobby will wait here?”

The last bit was a question. He was sure that he should wait outside. But it was so cold he was hoping that the professor wouldn’t send him away. Dobby looked around for something to punish himself with. He was trying to deceive a great witch and deserved to be punished.

“That isn’t necessary. Come with me. Dobby, stop that this instant and come.”

Dobby obeyed and followed the professor up the stairs. Of course, it made perfect sense that he should follow the great witch into the headmaster’s office. If he waited outside she would have to get him again, which would have been a great inconvenience to her. Dobby hoped that he would not make such a stupid mistake again. He was here for a job and needed to make a good impression. He struggled to overcome the great steps leading to the headmaster’s office. He went as fast as he could, but noticed that Professor McGonagall had to stop every couple of steps to make sure he was with her.

He was very out of breath when they arrived at the top of the stairs. A humble wooden door was set in a stone frame. Dobby figured that this was a trick so that people wouldn’t think it was really the headmaster’s office. Wizards were truly clever.

 

Dobby stopped short as Professor McGonagall passed into the headmaster’s office. He peered from the door and managed to sneak a peek. A great desk set overlooking a vast domain of wizarding equipment. Dobby imagined the terrible power that must be contained within the silver bowls and golden mechanisms perched atop towering tables and benches.

A momentary flutter of movement from the far side of the room caused Dobby to let out a small moan. A bird of prey far larger than Dobby sat perched atop a post. Dobby imagined its great claws ripping into his shoulders. Its beak looked so sharp. Its wings far too large. He wouldn’t be able to outrun it if he displeased Dumbledore. He regretted coming to Hogwarts at all.

“Minerva, I apologize for not meeting with you after dinner. I’ve been engrossed with this task and it’s made me rather forgetful. Forgive me.”

Dobby’s eyes fluttered from the phoenix to the headmaster and back again. The legendary wizard Dumbledore sat at his desk apparently engrossed in his work. He gestured at something on his desk, which didn’t elicit a response from Professor McGonagall apart from a moment of silence.

“No need to apologize Headmaster, I assure you that our conversation can wait until you are not dealing with such pressing manners. However, I’ve brought you a guest. Come here Dobby.”

Dobby felt even smaller as three sets of eyes fell on him.  He thought a moment about running, but honestly couldn’t think of a place to run to. Wherever he was going to go would be cold. At least the castle was warmer than where he had been sleeping. Dobby winced at the sound of his single bare foot slapping against the stone as he crossed to the headmaster’s desk. He wished he had another sock, but stealing one from the garbage would have merited a severe punishment from himself.

Dobby approached as close to the desk as he dared. He was still more than twenty feet away, but was close enough that he felt the faint heat from the fire behind the desk in the great fireplace. He placed his bare foot atop his other, clothed foot. Dobby was very grateful for the sock that Harry Potter had given him; it had kept him far warmer than he deserved on many nights.

Dumbledore’s eyes reminded Dobby of cold water. His glasses caught the reflection of one of the countless candles he had scattered across his desk, but his blue eyes poked out from atop the glasses. Their color was betrayed by the kind smile he offered Dobby upon his approach. Dobby had mixed feelings about wizards who smiled. Wizards were normally very serious. Especially when it was a serious situation, and Dobby couldn’t think of a matter more serious than his application to work at Hogwarts.

Dobby was on his best behavior. He avoided the eyes of the headmaster and Professor McGonagall and waited for them to speak. He hid his hands behind his stained tea cozy so that they wouldn’t see him fidget nervously.

After what seemed like an exceptionally long amount of time, the headmaster broke the silence.

“It is a pleasure to see you, Dobby. It is rare that I have a house elf in my office and rarer still that it is one not affiliated with my school.”

Dobby pulled his right ear down at an angle extreme enough to elicit a whimper in response. Dumbledore didn’t react besides a momentary pause.

“I believe we’ve met before, yes? At your, ah, previous employer’s place of residence.”

The mention of his old master still sent a wave of paralyzing fear through the house elf’s slender frame. Dobby bit down on his ear hard while nodding at the headmaster.  He dared not look him in the eye. He felt like if he did he would instantly die. With a start, he realized that Dumbledore had stopped talking. Had he asked Dobby a question? Had he given him an order and he hadn’t payed attention? Dobby hazarded a look at the desk and saw that the headmaster had set aside whatever he had been working on and was purely focused on Dobby. This was terrifying. Dobby started to tremble.

The headmaster’s voice took on a soft tone.

“Minerva, I wonder if you could help me move this closer to the fire. Dobby, if you could join me.”

Dobby obediently followed, thankful for an order that he could obey. There was a large fireplace behind the headmaster’s desk that had a small amount of embers dying in the hearth. The headmaster urged the fire to life with a wave of his hands as he eased himself into a humble rocking chair that Dobby hadn’t noticed before. Dobby approached the side of the desk and watched as the headmaster struggled to unwind a pair of knitting needles that had become tangled in yarn as he sat down.

“No matter how hard I try, Minerva, I can never keep them straight when I twist them.”

“Perhaps less twisting is advisable then, Albus.”

Professor McGonagall placed a wicker basket at the feet of the headmaster.  A single thread of crimson yarn snaked up from the basket and wound around the needles. Dobby had clearly interrupted a delicate task. What was he thinking? Of course the headmaster was constantly producing powerful and terrible artifacts of unimaginable might.

Dumbledore rested the needles on the shawl he spread across his lap. His chair creaked softly as he craned his body backward to look at the house elf, half hidden behind the headmaster’s desk.

“Come and sit by the fire Dobby. Thank you Minerva.”

Professor McGonagall left with a silent goodbye to the headmaster in the form of a hand on his shoulder. Her departure left Dobby oddly regretting her absence. She was a powerful witch, but her leaving meant that he was truly alone with the headmaster. The fire sighed a reminder of the warmth that tempted the house elf closer to the headmaster.

Dumbledore returned to his knitting as Dobby approached the hearth.

“I’m afraid I don’t have a chair in your size, Dobby. If the foot stool won’t do we can always trade.”

Dobby’s eyes went wide at the suggestion from the headmaster -- so wide that he couldn’t avoid making momentary eye contact with the honorable wizard. He froze mid-motion in sitting on the stool, afraid of what was to come. Dumbledore winked at the house elf before returning to work on his knitting.

The warmth of the fire crept across Dobby’s back. He felt the cold in his legs and toes flee from his body. He was tempted to take his sock off and dry it, but was afraid that he would lose it if he dropped it.

“Dobby.” The headmaster was looking at him again. This time the house elf felt bold enough to make furtive, broken eye contact with the headmaster. “I’m going to knit. I want you to tell me why you are here, when you are ready.”

Dumbledore straightened out his half-finished project and sighed.

“We have plenty of time, I assure you.”

They sat in silence besides an occasional crackle from the fire, which caused Dobby to jump. Eventually, Dumbledore’s pet phoenix flew across the room to land on the shoulder of the headmaster’s rocking chair. He paused his knitting for a moment to feed the bird some seeds from his front pocket. He took a mouthful for himself before returning the extra to his pocket.

“Headmaster Dumbledore, Sir?”

Dobby winced at the sound of his voice in the silent office. The headmaster didn’t look up from his knitting.

“Yes, Dobby?”

“Shall I add some wood to the fire, Sir?”

“If you would like to, Dobby. You’ll find that no one here will order you to do so.”

The soft ‘tink tink tink’ of the headmaster’s needles sounded loud in the house elf’s ears.

“That’s why Dobby is here, Headmaster Wizard Dumbledore Sir. Dobby has come to ask for a job.”

The headmaster’s needles paused for a moment, then continued.

“Hogwarts has a great many house elves at our employ. I believe that we can make room for you. But please Dobby, you can refer to me as just headmaster. On that note, you can refer to me as a barmy old codger if you like.”

Dobby tip-toed over to the pile of firewood besides the hearth and added two logs to the fire. He wasn’t listening to the headmaster. He was summoning his courage. He tried to think what his friend, Harry Potter, would do in this situation. He decided that Harry Potter would do something very clever. Dobby wished he was clever like Harry Potter.

“I wonder, Dobby, why is it that you chose to come here in person instead of using the House Elf Placement Company?” Dumbledore had returned to his knitting.

Dobby chose not to return to his stool, but instead stood before the fire.

“Dobby doesn’t wish to work as a slave. Dobby deserves pay.”

Dumbledore continued to knit.

“Of course. How much do you have in mind?”

This was an excellent question. It was one that Dobby had not actually thought of. He had imagined where he would put his money once he had it. A small tin he had found that had a key built in it and a fish painted on the side. Dobby chose a number that he thought was small enough.

“Dobby would like ten a month.” He stopped his legs from trembling by holding the stool in front of him.

“Ten what Dobby?” Dumbledore didn’t look up from his needles.

“Coins, Sir.”

“Dobby, I know you are familiar with wizard currency. Please.”

“Dobby meant no deception, Sir. Dobby thought that this would be a good way to negotiate. Dobby would say how many coins and the headmaster would tell him what coins.”

Dumbledore paused for a moment and stared at Dobby over his half-moon spectacles.

“Then I suppose galleons will do.” The knitting continued. “I’m afraid that another concession that you will have to make is that we pay weekly, not monthly.”

Dobby’s eyes went wide as he imagined the unseemly amount of money that such an income would result in. He would need a much larger tin. Dobby instinctually looked for something to punish himself with. He had tricked the headmaster of Hogwarts into offering him too much money! He grasped at the iron fire poker propped behind the woodpile.

A firm hand closed over his, preventing him from moving the poker.

“Sit down, Dobby.” Dumbledore’s voice was firm, but had no hint of anger.

Dobby released the poker and was ushered back to the foot stool.

“It’s too much, Sir. Dobby shouldn’t have a need for so much money.”

Dumbledore returned to his chair, the fire poker remained behind the wood pile. He started to unwind the yarn again as the needles had become tangled again.

“Perhaps a bit less, Sir. The headmaster is so kind, but Dobby has no need for so much money.”

“As you wish, Dobby.” The needles came free from the yarn and resumed their gentle tinkling.

“Would you like to change your number to something more to your liking?”

Dobby searched the headmaster’s eyes. He was truly focused on the needles before him. Dobby wished that the headmaster would tell him what an acceptable pay was. Dobby wished Harry Potter had come with him.

“Headmaster Dumbledore Sir, I would think one. No, two.” Dumbledore stopped knitting and stared at the house elf. Dobby searched the headmasters expression for a hint of what he was supposed to say.

“Dobby would think… Three would be a… Dobby would never say four galleons a week. Dobby would think.”

“If you insist, Dobby. Four galleons a week with weekends off is reasonable, I suppose.”

Dobby had forgotten that weekends existed. Dobby thought about having to spend two entire days alone and at home with nothing to do. This was an unpleasant thought.

“Dobby will go mad with so much time away, Sir. Dobby would rather not have weekends, Sir.”

“Dobby, I must insist.” The voice was kind. Dobby believed Dumbledore that he was allowed to have this.

“Perhaps then, Sir. Dobby should have one then.”

Dumbledore let out a sigh.

“Four galleons a week with a day off a month. I’ll have our caretaker draw up your wages.”

Dumbledore’s eyes caught the reflection of the fire again. This time the fire appeared like glowing embers in his eyes.

“Dobby, the caretaker will instruct you of your specific duties, but we must speak of some special rules for you. Before I accept you as faculty of my school, you must agree to my terms.”

Dumbledore removed one of his needles from his knitting and used some scissors to cut the thread from the basket. Dobby stood as tall as he was able, his attention riveted.

“You work for Hogwarts. As such, it is not your place to punish the staff of Hogwarts. As headmaster that is my role. You are not to punish yourself for any misdeed, no matter how severe without my direction. Do you understand.”

Dobby understood.

“Now come here Dobby. I’d like you to try on this scarf. If it helps, I’ve been repeatedly assured by my fellow teachers that my knitting does not count as clothes.”