Hedwig hated to leave her boy behind. But there was nothing she could do.
She had watched the large, pig-like man build the fire and throw Harry's things into it. Her boy had begged her to carry his magical objects far away from the man, and she had done her best. But on the last trip, the man had caught her, and she had been hurled through the air, toward the bright flames.
Gaining control at the last moment, she had tried to return to her boy, but could not. The pig-man was still flailing about, trying to throw her back into the fire. Throwing wide her wings, she soared over the backyard fence, away from the bonfire.
A searing pain shot through her right wing. She swiveled her head to see a tendril of flame growing among her feathers. She wrapped her wings close to her body and pointed her head toward a snowdrift between two cars on a quiet street. Down, down, and then a quick pull upward to land gently in the soft wetness.
A hiss, and then a curl of smoke and steam from her wing as the flame sputtered out. The biting coldness was a welcome relief.
Hedwig bobbed her wings experimentally, bouncing upward onto the roof of a car. Bit wobbly, but not grounded, she decided. An easy decision. She had, after all, been flying for thirty years, ever since she was a nestling. She was still young for a magical owl, but old enough to know from experience when she was still capable of flight.
Now came the hard decision: what to do?
She'd had a feeling this would be a bad year for her boy. There had been too many students in the Hogwarts Owlery throughout the late fall and early winter. Too many worried young faces, sending messages home. Too many visits from the kind, round-faced woman who took care of the sick students, sending the castle owls off to other healers, asking for advice and supplies. It wasn't long before the rumors spread among the owls: there was a monster within the castle, and it was hurting the students.
Hedwig had feared for her boy then. If only she'd known then that the worst was yet to come.
A man had come out of his boxy nest and was approaching the car, making jerking gestures and cawing noises at her. Hedwig cocked her wings tentatively, then took to the air before the annoying man got any closer. As she slid over the rows and rows of squat, boxy nests, she thought again of the kind, round-faced woman. She would go to Hogwarts, and fetch the woman. Harry needed that.
Her boy was sick. His last pleading words to her had been interrupted by a deep, wet cough. And there was no one but her to find help for him. Soon, she was flying over a large cluster of human dwellings--London, that was it--with stone and glass structures like trees, reaching up into the sky. Over and between them she flew, focusing on the magical ribbon that wound its way toward Hogwarts.
Not that she needed the guide. Harry wasn't the first boy she'd accompanied to Hogwarts.
But she didn't like to think about that. She blinked, surveying the street below her. Delectable rats scurried from her watchful eyes. But no time for a meal now.
She'd been relieved when the messages had gone out, that every student was being sent home for the Christmas holidays. Her boy would be safe from the monster lurking in the castle. Then she'd seen her boy's face, as he came to offer her the traveling cage.
That was when she remembered the strange creatures he'd nested with last summer: the pig-man, the horse-woman, and their odd nestling, who looked and acted like an egg that hadn't quite hatched. Instead of venturing out and exploring, he remained huddled inside, practically sat on by his parents, who ought to realize he wasn't an egg any longer.
Far stranger--and disconcerting--was their treatment of her boy. They screeched and growled and barked at him. They even leapt on him and shook him, like fox with its prey. She'd rarely seen her boy that summer, except at nights. He'd curl in one of those beds humans kept in their nests, shutting his eyes tightly. His body would be as rigid as ice on a lake, until, at long last, sleep would claim him.
It had been just as bad when she and her boy had arrived last week, if not worse. The humans had made their yelping, growling noises at him. The pig-man had even swatted at him, like a bear beaching a salmon. Hedwig had screeched in protest at that, which had led the man to rattle her cage. He'd gotten a bitten finger for his trouble.
It had meant no freedom from her cage--the pig-man had seen to that with two locks. She'd seen her boy very little after that. She'd once glimpsed him in the hallway outside the room, rubbing a brush against the floor. He appeared to be removing marks, only to have the egg-nestling pass by and create more marks. It made no sense to Hedwig. If they wanted her boy making repetitive movements, why not have him stroke Hedwig's feathers? She quite liked that, and it was far more useful than the activities they tasked him with.
Hedwig didn't truly worry until she stopped seeing her boy at night. At first, he would enter the room late, collapsing into the bed with grimy hands, only to be roughly woken up a few hours later. But soon, she stopped seeing him at all, although she could hear the scritch, scritch, scritch of his brush somewhere in the nest. Sometimes, she would hear the scrape, scrape, scrape of a spade on the sidewalk, and the boy would come to bed shivering, snow still melting off his thin jumper.
Still, as unhappy as it all made her, she didn't truly fear for him. Not until the fire.
Hedwig scanned the ground below her. She had passed London, and a vast expanse of white spilled out below her, stopped only by a dark tree or fence. Her flight was less sure now, sharp stabs traveling up her wing as the cold air sliced into the exposed skin. She firmed her resolve and flew on.
She'd done this before, she remembered. For her first boy at Hogwarts, decades ago. His first years at the castle, he'd doted on her, visiting her in the Owlery with treats and soft murmurs. He'd been terribly homesick those first few years, and she'd endured hardships to bring messages to him from his parents. She'd often arrived with aching wings after the long flights, but the look on her boy's face when she delivered her messages was worth it.
Then he'd grown up, and forgotten all about her. Her curly-haired boy had become a man who had gone off to war. And Hedwig had gone her own way, unwilling to care for another boy again.
Her wing was paining her more now, and she desperately wanted to rest. She glanced at a copse of trees below her, and thought of settling into the branches, tucking her wings close to her.
She flew on instead.
Evening was settling on the countryside when she spotted the castle. The sun was setting, the red glow spreading across the rolling hills.
The throbbing in her wing had merged with the tiredness of her muscles until her entire body ached. Each icy bite into her wings was agony. The lack of food left her light-headed, but she pushed her speed to her limits despite her wounds and weariness.
And now, just when the castle was within reach, she was faltering. The ground below her was growing darker, far darker than it should be when the sun had not yet set. The blanket of snow rose up to greet her.
Her body tumbled into a drift. Snow spurted around her as she smashed into the ground and turned head over tail. And yet, she did not feel the impact, or the coldness. She only felt grief that she had failed. Her boy...
A strange numbness overcame her, and she allowed it purchase within her body. There was nothing more she could do, now. She remembered her other boy, the curly-haired boy. The man he became: a soldier against dark magic. A soldier who left her in spirit long before he left for the war. And then, years later, she delivered a message to his mother, near the end of that war.
The message to tell her he wasn't coming home, ever again.
And now she wasn't going home to Harry, not ever again. She thought about her role in his life. She thought how she could deliver a thousand apologies written by others, and yet never offer one to the boy who would search the skies for her, waiting and hoping.
She had waited for her first boy, her curly haired boy. And later, she had sworn that there would never be another. Too much, to have him leave you, and then, leave you again forevermore.
But one bright morning she found herself flying over Diagon Alley. Watched the tiny shapes and heard high, excited voices below her. And she found herself settling in at the owlery there. Showing the proprietor, in the determined set of her wings, that she was ready for work again. Letting herself be lifted by a mighty tree of a man with dark eyes and a curly beard.
And then, looking into the shining green eyes of a boy. Her boy. Her Harry.
Hedwig stirred in the snow. She fought the numbness that was transforming into a deadly, beckoning warmth. She attempted a war cry, stumbling from the snow drift. But her war cry was no more than a croak and her struggles barely disturbed the drifts around her.
She set her gaze on the castle. Normally, she could glide easily to those turrets, coasting on the chill northern gusts. But now, as the sun melted into the horizon, the space stretched before her like an unending sea.
Her sharp gaze caught a buoy on that sea: a single dark vertical shape, bobbing against the white expanse. She was drifting toward it...no, no, that wasn't right. She remembered that she wasn't moving. The waves around her were wet but still. The tall, dark slash was the one moving, marked against the snow like the inky marks on the parchments she'd carried.
She closed her eyes--just for a moment, or so it seemed--and the dark figure was bent over her, blocking the precious little warmth the remaining rays of sun provided.
Hedwig peered upward, and the figure came into focus. She knew this man. A raven-like creature, with careful movements and watchful eyes. The other owls at Hogwarts did not care for him. He was not unkind, but not effusive with treats and praise, either.
Hedwig, however, remembered him from her first time at Hogwarts. A small, reserved boy, warily eyeing everyone in the Great Hall as he picked at his breakfast. He had the air of a chick that had been pushed out of his nest too soon. A boy who couldn't hide his delight on the rare days when he received a message or a package.
He reminded Hedwig of Harry.
The man spoke, and Hedwig felt the pulse of magic in the words, the pulse that meant she would understand him. Such a respite from the mewling, barking sounds of the humans her boy lived with during the summers.
"Potter's owl, yes?" the man murmured.
If Hedwig had not been so weakened, she would have nipped the man for his impertinence. Harry Potter's owl, honestly! As if an owl could belong to a boy. Harry was her boy. Humans were always confusing the natural order of things. She gave a feeble--but indignant--huff.
The thin line of his mouth twitched. "Ah. No disrespect intended." His dark gaze darted over her, landing on her damaged wing.
The man's fingers gently prodded the burn on her wing, then reached into his pocket. Something oily and tingly was rubbed into the burn, but the touch was far away, miles away from where she was. Everything was so distant. Then there was darkness, and warmth, and she realized she was pressed up against his chest, under his cloak. She trembled with relief. Then the trembling turned to shivers so violent that her entire body shook. Strange, that heat should make her shiver.
She felt the tip of a wand against her body, and a warm current. The shivering abated. And then a squeezing, even though the man's arms were cradling her carefully. She stiffened, pushing against the force.
When the cloak was pulled away, she was amazed to find herself in front of the boxy nest she'd left just that morning. She could even taste the remains of the smoke from the fire the piggy man had started.
The man loosened his hold on her, and she shifted her wings experimentally. Her burn still stung, but the terrible numbness had ebbed. She hopped to the man's shoulder, ducking her head as he touched his wand to the front door lock and entered the dwelling.
The three creatures Harry shared the nest with were seated on a sofa in the front room, staring raptly at a glowing box. They all looked up when she and the man entered, their mouths gaping open like chicks in need of feeding.
"Where is he?" the raven-like man asked.
The room erupted in cacophony, the pig-man standing and squawking, the horse-woman clinging to his arm and hissing, the boy curling into a ball and mewling.
"Quiet," said the man. He could barely be heard over the noise. But then he raised his wand, and silence fell. Immediately.
"I have asked once," said the man, his voice like raindrops sizzling on hot pavement. "And I do not wish to repeat myself."
The woman moved then, raising a trembling arm toward the stairs.
Within moments, Hedwig and the man were at her boy's bedside. Hopping onto the bed railing, Hedwig studied the child. Harry's skin had a slick sheen that emanated heat. His dark hair was pressed against his forehead and temples, heavy with sweat. Twitching eyelids revealed the restless movements of the dreaming eyes beneath.
The man kneeled by her boy's bed, his black hair sweeping forward as he bent low. He tilted his head to listen, his frown deepening with each heavy breath rasping from the boy's chest.
"You would go and spoil my holidays, Potter."
Hedwig snapped her beak at that, but the man paid her no mind. He pocketed the glasses lying on the bedside table and lifted her boy, a strange expression on his face. Anger? No, that wasn't quite right. Hedwig had no more time to consider it, as the lines of his face quickly smoothed. He extended an arm for Hedwig, and soon she felt that squeezing, pressing feeling as the world around her went dark. When she opened her eyes again, she saw Hogwarts looming above them.
A rather undignified way to travel, in her opinion.
Hedwig remained perched on his shoulder as the man entered the castle and strode to the infirmary. He placed the boy on a bed, settling the blankets over him. Then he flicked his wand and conjured a perch for her. She ignored it, flapping her wings to gently land on the sheets next to Harry. The man grunted at that as he turned and swept out.
Shadows filled the infirmary. The only light was a feeble glow from a few candles hovering near the arched ceiling. Hedwig watched her boy, hopping back occasionally as he turned restlessly in his sleep.
Soon the man returned, vials in hand. His pale fingers threaded through her boy's dark, wet hair as he tipped the vials, one by one, against the child's lips. Harry's throat convulsed as he swallowed, and he moaned in his sleep. But in a few moments, his breaths came deep and clear, and his restless movements stilled.
The man laid him back down and pulled the glasses from his pocket, placing them gently on a small table against the wall. Then he sat in a stiff-backed chair near the bed. There was a long silence as both he and Hedwig watched Harry sleep.
"I must go soon," the murmured, his long arms splayed across his knees. He reached out with one hand and fingered the coverlet. "I have duties to attend to." He frowned, then amended, "other duties." He glanced toward the fireplace. "Someone should watch over him...Poppy..."
For that, Hedwig did nip him, squarely on the back of his hand. He jerked back and glared. Hedwig stared back, defiant. Someone should watch over him. She wouldn't be insulted like that.
The man studied the owl, and a wry expression stole across his face. "I take it that further caretakers are not required." He stood, rubbing the back of his hand ruefully. He stepped away from the bed, but he stopped and looked back before he reached the door. His eyes were shadowed, and that strange expression crossed his face again. No, definitely not anger.
"Just as well you're so keen on the job. The boy needs all the help he can get." He studied the sleeping child on the bed. "I'll return come morning. Do try to keep him from throwing his life into danger until then."
And with a final look, the dark figure disappeared through the doorway.
Hedwig settled herself on the mattress, near the warmth of Harry's small body. Her boy turned, his arms curling around her as he sighed softly in his dreams.
She remained awake, her eyes steady on the empty doorway. She knew the man would return, as good as his word.
Human expressions were still difficult for her, but now, she understood. Not anger on his face, not exactly. Resentment, reluctance, but also loyalty and protectiveness; a sworn duty. She knew all of this, because she knew them within herself when she first saw Harry. When she chose to make him her boy.
The man with the dark eyes also chose. Hedwig saw that, and a peace filled her.
Harry was his boy, too.