The bell above the shop door jingled as a boy pushed it open and stepped out into the warm July afternoon. His cousin stepped up beside him, and they squinted out at the stifling hot city of London. They had the same nose, and were dressed in similar clothing, but there the resemblance ended. One was tall, blond, and overweight, though he wasn't nearly the size he'd been the year before. His companion was short, dark-haired, and while skinny, was also doing better than he had. Their names were Harry Potter and Dudley Dursley, and they were wizards.
They shuffled away from the door, already dabbing sweat from their faces with their sleeves, and Harry drew two popsicles from his grocery bag. One was passed to Dudley, who adjusted his grip on his bag and took it gratefully. "That's everything, then?" he asked, voice a little muffled as he opened the wrapping with his teeth.
"Should be," said Harry, sounding not in the least bit inclined to hunt through his pockets for the shopping list. He paused momentarily to unwrap his popsicle, then caught up to his cousin. "It's not like we can't go back later if we forgot something. Want to try writing again while we watch Merlin?"
"Sure," said Dudley, a little half-heartedly.
Merlin was, in theory, a cat. It belonged to their neighbor, Giulia Parander, who was majoring in Arithmancy at the London Institute of Wizardry. Dudley and Harry had taken up pet-sitting for her during her long class days for a bit of pocket money, and spent half their time coming up with theories about Merlin's heritage. It was, at least, the correct size for a cat, polka-dotted fur aside.
The previous year, the elder Dursleys had separated, and Petunia had secured an apartment in London. What she hadn't mentioned to her son and nephew was the fact that the complex was owned by a witch, and the rest of the tenants were squibs, students at the Institute, and what seemed to be every dotty auntie in Wizarding Britain. As it turned out, the landlady, Ms. Blomgren, was in Molly Weasley's knitting circle, and was more than happy to take them on at her recommendation. It was a small complex, quietly tucked in between a sandwich shop and a parking garage, and Ms. Blomgren kept a vegetable garden in the back that was much larger than it had any right to be. To two boys freshly initiated into the world of magic, it was perfection.
As they rounded the corner, they nearly ran right into Giulia. She was short, barely taller than Harry, and she had the pointy features of someone with watered-down goblin blood in their veins. Her pale hair was cut in a bob, but today it was up in a weak bun, and the corners of her small eyes crinkled as she recognized them. "Hi!" she said brightly, jabbing a hairpin into her hair so violently that Dudley feared for her skull. "I've already fed Merlin, so he shouldn't be much trouble today! Sorry, but I have to run!" She pressed a packet of ice mice into Harry's hand and ruffled their hair before darting away down the street. The boys watched her go, feeling rather as if they'd been accosted by a cheerful storm, before heading up to their apartment to drop off the groceries.
Petunia wasn't home yet, and wouldn't be for a while - she worked as a secretary, and it was nearly an hour's commute by bus. The boys unpacked the groceries, finished off their popsicles, then ducked into the room they shared to collect their things. It was strange, sharing a bedroom. The tiny apartment only had two bedrooms which were barely closets, and it had been a trial finding space for the trunks and owls when they'd arrived. As Harry petted Hedwig, Dudley rifled through his blanket until he found the Potions magazine he'd fallen asleep reading the night before, and after collecting the miscellaneous sweets and bits of paper they required, they set off upstairs to Giulia's apartment.
"Good afternoon!" called Ms. Alwort, Giulia's neighbor, as they reached her door. A large tabby cat wound around her ankles and trotted lazily toward them.
"Hullo, Ms. Alwort," said Harry politely, and stooped to pet the cat as Dudley searched his pockets for the spare key.
"Merlin's in a mood today," the elderly witch warned them. "He fair tore the curtains up, or so it sounded earlier."
"Thank you for the warning," Dudley said, opening the door, and the cousins slipped into the stuffy apartment.
Harry wandered over to the windows and opened them wide, then went in search of Merlin as Dudley settled on the couch and spread the magazine and writing materials on the coffee table.
The only downside to their summer so far had been the lack of communication from their friends. All their letters had returned unopened, and none of the phonecalls to Hermione and Hannah went through. At first it hadn't bothered them too much - after all, their friends probably had plans for the summer, and maybe it was just too far for the owls. But as the weeks stretched on, they had started to worry. They even borrowed Ms. Blomgren's fireplace to try a Floo call, and that hadn't gone through either. Granted, it was also their first time using the Floo network, and they'd only just avoided singing their eyebrows off.
Harry returned to the living room with Merlin stretched possessively across his shoulders, his scorpion tail wrapped lazily around the boy's neck. "He was in the bathtub," Harry announced, perching on the edge of the couch, and reached for a ballpoint pen.
And found himself grabbing the ear of the house elf sitting on the coffee table.
It was hard to say who was more surprised, Harry or the elf. They stared at each other until Harry got hold of himself and released the elf's ear, stammering an apology. Merlin opened one beady eye and squawked warningly at the elf before jumping down from Harry's shoulders and disappearing into the kitchen.
The house elf was not unusual for one of its kind, possessing the usual batlike ears and bulging tennis ball eyes that were so common. It wore a ratty old pillowcase, and was nervously twisting the hem in its long, bony fingers. It looked uncertainly at Harry and squeaked, "Harry Potter?"
Harry nodded hesitantly, as if he didn't quite trust himself to speak, and the elf broke into a rapturous grin and jumped to its feet. "Oh, Dobby has wanted to meet you for so long!" he cried, bowing low. "Such an honor it is, sir!" As Harry weakly protested, the elf turned to Dudley and eyed him speculatively. "The Dursey?" he asked.
Dudley, who was reeling a little - this was the legendary Dobby? - said, faintly, "Sure."
"Sorry," Harry interrupted, "but who are you?"
"Dobby, sir. Just Dobby. Dobby the house elf," said the creature, beaming once more.
Harry looked rather desperately at Dudley, who could only stare helplessly back. "Er. Right. Erm... can we help you, Dobby?"
"Well, sir," said the elf, wringing his hands, "Dobby has come to tell you, sir... it is difficult, sir... Dobby wonders where to begin..."
"Why don't you sit down," Harry suggested politely, gesturing to the armchair. To the horror of the boys, Dobby immediately burst into tears. "Oh! I'm sorry, I didn't mean to offend you, or, or anything."
"Offend Dobby!" choked the elf. "Dobby has never been asked to sit down by a wizard- like an equal-!"
Dudley set a throw pillow on the table and gently guided the elf until he was sitting on it. "There, there," he said awkwardly. The pillow had lace and crocheted flowers, and Dobby looked very much like an ugly little doll. Rather hysterically, Dudley thought that it was a shame there wasn't doll clothing lying around to complete the ridiculous picture.
Eventually, Dobby calmed down, noisily blowing his nose on the edge of his pillow case, and stared adoringly at Harry with watery green eyes. "You can't have met many decent wizards," said Harry, sounding genuinely sympathetic.
Dobby shook his head - and then, without warning, darted across the room and began bashing his head against the bookcase, shouting, "Bad Dobby! Bad Dobby!" Giulia's collection of tiny ceramic dogs immediately woke up from their naps and started barking in their tinkling little voices as the shelves rattled. A couple fell off, and the boys hurried over - Harry to catch the figurines, Dudley to carefully pry the elf away.
"Easy, Dobby!" Dudley cried, and finally managed to sit him safely back on the frilly throw pillow. "What was that all about?"
Harry murmured nonsense to the ceramic dogs as he replaced them, then returned to hover at Dudley's elbow, staring at the elf in concern. "Dobby had to punish himself, sir," said the elf, a little dazedly. "Dobby almost spoke ill of his family."
"Family?" Harry echoed, then seemed to finally remember what Neville had told them about house elves. "The family you... serve?" A nod. "That doesn't sound right, Neville said wizards are supposed to treat elves fairly. Isn't there some way we could help?"
At that, Dobby burst into tears, wailing about how wonderful Harry was, and it took five minutes and several handkerchiefs that they desperately hoped Giulia wouldn't miss before he would calm down again. Deciding that someone needed to get hold of the situation, Dudley said, "Sorry, Dobby, but what are you here to tell us?"
With a final sniff, the elf hunched and conspiratorially bid them closer, and the boys leaned in, curious. "Dobby heard tell," he said in a hoarse whisper, "that Harry Potter met the Dark Lord for a second time just weeks ago - that Harry Potter escaped yet again."
Harry nodded, expression turning wary as Dobby's eyes suddenly shone with tears again. "Ah, sir," Dobby gasped, dabbing his face with the corner of the only surviving handkerchief, "Harry Potter is valiant and bold! He has braved so many dangers already! But Dobby has come to protect him, to warn him, even if he does have to shut his ears in the oven door later. Harry Potter must not go back to Hogwarts."
A startled silence fell, broken only by the sound of a door opening and closing down the hall.
"W-what?" Harry stammered. "But - but I have to go back, term starts September first. And I'll be surrounded by teachers there, wouldn't it be, er, safer?"
But Dobby was shaking his head, ears slapping against his skull. "No, no, no," he squeaked. "Harry Potter must stay where he is safe! He is too great, too good, to lose. If Harry Potter goes back to Hogwarts, he will be in mortal danger."
I'm beginning to see a trend, thought Dudley, but said aloud,"Why?"
"There is a plot, sirs, Dobby has known it for months." Dobby was trembling now, so violently that everything on the coffee table was rattling. "A plot to make most terrible things happen at Hogwarts this year."
"Who's plotting them? Is it You-Know-Who?" Dudley asked sharply.
The house elf shook his head, made a funny choking noise, and launched himself outwards. Fortunately Harry, having seen this coming, was prepared, and caught him in his arms. Dobby was settled back on his cushion, and once he stopped struggling, Harry said, "Okay, you can't tell us. But Albus Dumbledore is there, and he's the greatest wizard alive. Surely nothing will get through him."
Dobby shook his head, trembling again. "He is powerful, sir, but there are powers Dumbledore doesn't- powers no decent wizard should-" And before either boy could catch him, had leapt from the table and was cracking his head against the bookcase again. The ceramic dogs, who had only just ceased their barking, immediately started up again.
Harry gently pried him away and said, "Look, being at Hogwarts is the only place I really feel - right. For the first time, I have friends, friends who stand up for me, who go along with my crazy ideas-"
"Who don't even write to Harry Potter?" said Dobby slyly.
"I expect they've just been - wait a minute." Harry frowned down at the elf. "How do you-? Have you been stopping our letters?"
The elf stepped out of Harry's reach and pulled a thick wad of envelopes from the inside of the pillowcase he was wearing. "Dobby has them here, sir," he said. "Harry Potter mustn't be angry, Dobby hoped... if Harry Potter thought his friends had forgotten him, Harry Potter might not want to go back to school, sir."
Harry, not listening, made a grab for the letters. Dobby jumped out of reach - but he'd forgotten about the second wizard in the room, and he found himself held carefully but firmly by Dudley. "Give us our letters, please, Dobby," Dudley said, in a tone of voice that brooked no argument.
"Not until Harry Potter promises not to return to Hogwarts!" the elf cried, wriggling. "Ah, sir, this is a danger you must not face! Say you won't go back, sir!"
"No," said Harry angrily, and darted forward. He plucked the letters from the elf's hand, and had just got them safely inside a pocket when something seemed to explode.
"Harry Potter leaves Dobby no choice!" Dobby shouted sadly above the noise. As a tiny hurricane whipped round the tiny apartment, the wizards huddled on the floor, covering their heads.
There was a loud, feline screech of protest that dragged on for ages, growing ever closer, until something heavy thumped down onto Dudley's back and claws dug into his skin. And then, suddenly as it had come, the storm was gone. In the eery quiet, Dudley and Harry cautiously put up their heads, and gaped at what they saw. The apartment was completely wrecked, and there was no sign of Dobby anywhere. Harry made an odd choking noise.
"Er - don't look now, but Merlin-" he said, and went a little green.
Dudley pulled the creature off his back and found that it had, somehow, been completely shaved. The beady eyes glared hatefully up at him from within numerous drooping folds of greyish-pink skin. "Just when I thought you couldn't get any uglier," Dudley told it, and sighed before scratching under Merlin's chin. The cat reluctantly purred, lowering its scorpion tail, and when he deemed it safe, he set it down. "He didn't take the letters back, did he?"
Harry checked his pocket, and when he drew out the letters, was relieved to see them unharmed. He put them back, despite his burning curiosity, and stood up to survey the damage.
It was, in a word, extensive. Most of the little nick-knacks littering the shelves and tables and counters had been smashed into oblivion, and there were shreds of paper strewn everywhere. A peek into the kitchen revealed a pile of broken dishes, but they were reluctant to investigate the bedroom. Finally, they eased the door open, but mercifully, there was no damage, and the reason was soon discovered. There were warding runes smoking gently on the doorframe, a cherry red glow slowly fading from them, and the boys closed the door again with considerable relief.
"Well," said Harry slowly, rolling up his sleeves, "let's see what we can do to fix this up."
They spent the rest of the afternoon sorting through the broken items and getting as much of the pieces together as they could, then throwing repairing spells. As a teacup reformed in front of him, Dudley felt, not for the first time, an intense relief that they lived in a witch-run complex. With so much spellwork going around, there was no way they could get in trouble for using magic.
Not, of course, that he was using all that much. He hadn't managed to get the hang of reparo yet, so the bulk of the spellwork was being done by Harry, who had mastered it just the other day. Dudley pushed the last little pile of shards towards him just as they heard the front door open, and cringed.
"I'm home!" Giulia called brightly, then paused. "Harry? Dudley? Is everything okay?"
She came into the kitchen with her wand drawn, and relaxed when she saw only two guilty-looking boys. "What happened?"
"Er," said Dudley.
"Rogue house elf," Harry said sheepishly. "I think we fixed everything?"
The newly repaired dishes had been set on the counter. Some of them were a little mismatched due to a mixup in piles when Merlin had walked through them, and Dudley could see one blue saucer was littered with bits of white and pink ceramic.
Giulia eyed the dishes herself, then grinned. "I think you got most of it. I can handle it from here - are you two okay?"
"We're fine," Dudley assured her as Harry let out a relieved sigh. "Um, but, Merlin-"
At that moment, the cat leapt from the top of the fridge and into Giulia's arms, complaining loudly, and she stared at him in surprise before bursting into laughter.
They helped Giulia finish cleaning, despite her protests, and reluctantly accepted when she insisted on paying them anyway, then scuttled out into the hall and went downstairs. As they reached the second floor, a door opened, and a woman in her late twenties poked her head out. She was nearly six and a half feet tall, with dark skin and waist-length hair, and there were a pair of round green spectacles perched on her nose.
"Hey, is everything all right?" she called. "I just came in from the shops and saw that all the wards had flickered."
"Oh," said Harry, surprised. "Er - rogue house elf. Just caused a bit of a mess."
The woman stepped fully out into the hall, and they tried very hard not to be intimidated. "Really? D'you know the elf's name?" She didn't seem angry, just curious, but Dudley had the sudden feeling that if they told anyone Dobby's name, the elf would be in serious trouble.
"He didn't say," he said, before Harry could say anything, and didn't dare look at his cousin. The woman raised an eyebrow, but nodded.
"As long as he didn't hurt anyone, then," she said, and with a cordial nod, returned to her apartment. The door shone green, briefly, and the boys shared a look before hurrying down to the first floor.
Their apartment was on the very corner of the complex, overlooking one of the flower beds, and as soon as they were inside, Dudley flung open the curtains to let the light in. Harry took out the letters and laid them out on the kitchen counter to sort them by date. "What a mess," he said, huffing in annoyance. "What should we do?"
Dudley peered over his shoulder at the mail, humming thoughtfully. "I think we need to talk to the Weasleys. Mr. Weasley works in the Ministry, doesn't he?"
"Yeah, but how are we going to get hold of them? Dobby could still have this place locked down."
They stared warily at the window, as if saying the elf's name would summon him, but when nothing happened, Dudley said slowly, "Maybe I ought to take a bus to the Leaky and use the Floo there."
Harry brightened at the idea. "If we leave now, we can probably get there and back before your mum gets home."
Dudley said, hesitating, "I think maybe you should stay here for now. What if he's tracing you?"
His cousin's face fell, and he looked for a moment like he might be stubborn - but then he looked down at the letters and frowned. "You might be right," he admitted reluctantly. "Are you okay to go alone, though?"
"It's not that far, only fifteen minutes," Dudley said, trying to be reassuring. "Lucky Giulia insisted on paying us, though - I dunno if I'd have had change for the bus otherwise."
About twenty minutes later, he was in an empty back room at the Leaky, sticking his head through green fire and blinking at the Weasley's living room. "Er - excuse me?" he called hesitantly. A distant humming broke off, and there was a faint clank of dishes.
"A moment, dear!" Molly Weasley replied, and before long she turned the corner, drying her hands on her apron. When she saw him, her face lit up, then creased in worry. "Oh! Dudley, isn't it? Are you and Harry all right, dear? We haven't heard from you all summer."
"We're fine, ma'am," said Dudley, intensely relieved. "It's a bit of a story, though - do you have a minute?"
She listened patiently as he described that afternoon's events - he left out Dobby's name again, but she didn't question it - and when he had finished, she said, "Well, there's just one thing to do!" She smiled warmly at him, eyes merry. "Is your mother home?"
Dudley blinked in surprise and glanced at his watch. "Er, she should be soon. Why?"
"Well," said Mrs. Weasley, "I thought it might be lovely to have you and Harry come out for the rest of the summer. We can make up for the lack of letters, and perhaps we can settle this house elf problem in the process."
"I- that would be wonderful!" said Dudley, surprised. "I mean, I don't want to be trouble-"
She waved her hand, smiling. "You wouldn't be," she promised. "Now, you may want to back up."
He did so, and a moment later, Mrs. Weasley emerged from the fireplace, a handbag hanging from her elbow, and she beamed at him. "I thought it might be easier to visit in person, in case your area is still locked," she explained. They left the Leaky, and just as Dudley was wondering how they were going to get there, Mrs. Weasley glanced round and raised her wand hand into the air.
A large purple monstrosity screeched to a halt in front of them, seeming to materialize out of nothing, and with a jolt of horror, Dudley realized that he was looking at the Knight Bus.