S/N: Response to Burnt Hedwig Challenge by Howldaloom: Summer before fourth year, Harry is locked in his room at the Dursleys', forced to live as a house elf, brutally beaten, and starved. Hedwig is tossed onto a bonfire with Harry's other belongings, but she manages to barely escape! Hedwig is badly injured, and so burnt that she can't be recognized as a snowy owl. What will she do? Where does she go for help? Can Harry be saved in time?

A/N: Voldemort is dead and is staying that way. Snape isn't mentioned much in this first chapter, but he will obviously be a prominent character. Tell me if a character seems AU, but I'll probably have an explanation coming anyway… And if anyone would care to Beta me, I'd be grateful. I've been looking for a Beta reader for my fan fictions for a couple of months.

Blowing up Aunt Marge was the proverbial straw that broke the camel's back. In hindsight, Harry supposed that was a bit ironic, since it was the one time he could remember actively striving to control his magic. He'd failed miserably, no doubt about it, and now he was being forced to pay.

Harry Potter, the boy who lived, was currently stripped of everything but his shorts, laying on his stomach upon a disgusting excuse for a mattress, his hands and feet tied to the bed posts. He could feel the white hot strips of pain on his back from where his uncle had used first a belt, then an actual whip, insisting all the time that they would actually beat the magic out of him. Harry hadn't been able to do a thing to defend himself from his current position, although his wrists and ankles were chafed raw from straining against the bonds, and his throat was hoarse from screaming. If only his infamous "fan club" could see him now.

He could hear his uncle's heavy footsteps on the landing outside his bedroom and had just enough time to brace himself when the door was flung open with a resounding crash. Vernon Dursley stood framed in the doorway, the light from the hall illuminating him from behind and giving him an eerie glow. Not that he wasn't eerie enough to begin with. Harry felt his breath catch in the back of his throat at the feral look in his uncle's pudgy blue eyes.

Harry watched helplessly as his uncle strode into the room, carrying a trunk in his wake. Vernon was gathering up all of Harry's things, throwing them haphazardly into the trunk. Harry wondered if he was going somewhere. Maybe his relatives had finally decided to get rid of him, to send him to an orphanage. Yeah, that must be it. There was no other reason for his uncle to gather up all of his possessions like that.

A part of Harry knew that his uncle wasn't just packing for him, and when Vernon picked up Hedwig's cage, a part of him knew that Vernon didn't mean for Harry to see Hedwig ever again. Yes, inside, a part of Harry knew this, but he didn't acknowledge it. Not until he saw the smoke drifting up from the yard outside, smelled the fire burning, and heard the mournful screech of his first pet and only ally. At that point, a lone tear dripped down his bruised and battered face, coming to a halt near his chin and drying up forevermore.

Outside, Vernon Dursley had lit Harry's school things on fire. Watching all of his nephew's magical possessions go up in flames was an extremely liberating feeling. It was like a symbol of what he was doing at the house, a symbol that the boy's freakishness could be wiped away forever. Just a little longer, Vernon thought. The boy was close to breaking already. He looked at the cage that held the boy's snowy owl. It was a despicable creature, a ruddy owl, but the freak was attached to it. If Vernon was lucky, this would be the thing to undo the boy. With that thought in mind, Vernon tossed the cage into the hot depths of the fire.

The latch of the cage hit the corner of Harry's burning trunk and flew open. With a screech, Hedwig forced her body through the opening as quickly as possible and flew skyward, as far from the source of heat and pain as she could get. Vernon watched her go, disgusted. He should have brought a gun out, just in case. If Potter knew that his precious owl had escaped, he'd hold on that much longer. Then again, it wasn't like the boy had to know. Vernon could let him believe the owl had burnt to cinders along with everything else. After all, the bird wouldn't come back after having nearly been turned to ash. The freak would never know the difference.

With that thought firmly in his mind, Vernon went upstairs to see his nephew. A few carefully placed words and the boy would be wrapped around his finger. He marched up the stairs with the full intention of breaking it to the boy that he had no more magical possessions, but it turned out that he didn't have to. If the tear drop on the freak's face was any indication, he already knew. After all, Harry Potter was far too proud to cry with any regularity.

Vernon didn't feel sorry for the boy. You couldn't feel sorry for his kind or they'd have you wrapped around their freaky little fingers before long. No, you had to imbrue in them a sense of discipline and structure or they'd never be decent enough for civilized society. In fact, Vernon decided, it was time the boy stop lazing about upon his bed like an invalid. Lazy little freak, just like his parents. Never mind the fact that it had been Vernon who'd tied him to the bed in the first place.

Pulling a penknife from the pocket of his work slacks, Vernon cut the ropes from his nephew's arms. He took note of the fact that the skin had been chafed beyond raw, but that was hardly his fault. He didn't force the boy to struggle against the added security measure. No, the brat deserved those marks.

"Listen here, boy!" Vernon snarled, "You're not going back to that freaky little school of yours. You're going to stay here this summer and learn the meaning of hard work and discipline, and next year, you will be going to St. Brutus's Secure Center for Incurably Criminal Boys."

Harry's throat was so dry that he couldn't force words forth. Even if he could have, he doubted he would be able to speak. He was too emotional to come up with a coherent thought. He registered his uncle's gruff tones sure enough, though. No more Hogwarts. The thought alone was enough to tear at Harry's insides. He couldn't even write to Hogwarts to tell them he was being kidnapped, because Hedwig… They'd think he'd abandoned them. They'd think he didn't want to be there, now that Voldemort was gone. And even if they didn't think that. Well, what was the use? The Dursley's were his legal guardians, and now that Voldemort was gone, there was no absolute necessity for him to learn magic. No, the magical world would do nothing to help him. He knew that, and as the thought hit home, Harry finally broke. His body shaking a little, he lowered his eyes from his uncle's in a universal sign of defeat.

Satisfied, Vernon decided not to even cuff the boy for not answering him. Instead, he said simply, "There's weeds to be taken care of."

"Yes, sir," Harry whispered softly, and without another word the thirteen year old slipped down the stairs and outside.

Hagrid was outside, enjoying the freedom and liberty that came with having free reign of Hogwarts. Not that he didn't enjoy having the kids about, but sometimes it was nice to wander the grounds without having to worry that you might step on a youngster. Today he was alone outside Hogwarts castle, the very epitome of peacefulness. The only other person who had stayed on the school grounds for the summer was Severus Snape, and Hagrid hadn't seen hide nor hair of him yet. The man was a virtual hermit.

Hagrid finished feeding his bow truckles and settled in a chair in his garden, feeling the heat of the summer washing over his great body. His long, shaggy hair, slightly damp from a shower half an hour prior, was beginning to dry in great frizzy waves, but Hagrid paid it no mind. It would do as it wished.

He wasn't sure how long he sat there before his muse was interrupted by something colliding with his outstretched leg with a great deal of force. He sat up with a start and looked about for the source. It took him a moment to locate the owl, dazed as he was from being half asleep and opening his eyes in the brightness of the noon day. She was panting in a heap upon the ground, burnt from head to talons and barely conscious. Hagrid's instincts took over from there. He picked her up more gently than should have been possible for someone his size and carried her into his hut. He already knew that it would be a long time before she was healed fully again.

Harry was a mass of sore muscles, his head a slew of soggy porridge. All day, all night, for three days running, he'd been going to and fro for his uncle, doing every horrible chore the man could think of, but Harry still wasn't in the man's good graces. Not that he'd ever been, particularly, but at least before he'd gotten food. Now he was just getting by on water.

By the time Uncle Vernon excused him for the day, Harry could hardly stand. He crawled up the stairs and into Dudley's second bedroom, his pride forgotten entirely, and tried to pull himself onto the bed. Failing that, he dragged a pillow and blanket onto the floor with him and curled into a ball. It didn't even matter. He was so tired and dizzy he could have slept on a bed of nails.

It seemed like only a moment later a firm hand was shaking him gruffly awake. Harry inadvertently let out a little moan as his injuries were irritated, and to his surprise the hand let go of him. Well, that was new. He opened his eyes, noting how dark it was. It must be very, very early in the morning. He wasn't surprised that Uncle Vernon would have him getting up at such an ungodly hour.

Except when he put on his glasses and turned to look, it wasn't his uncle he saw. Instead it was his cousin, wearing a pair of flannel pajama pants and carrying a tray of food. Harry's brain was befuddled for a moment, and it took him longer than it should have to register the sight. But then Dudley was crouching down by the door and tentatively sliding the tray towards Harry as though he was some kind of rabid animal.

"Eat as much as you can," Dudley whispered, "but don't make yourself sick or Dad will have both our hides."

Well, Harry registered that one well enough. Uncle Vernon didn't know Dudley was feeding him. Harry was going to be in trouble when Uncle Vernon found out. No, that wasn't good. He couldn't get in trouble. With a quick shake of his head, Harry pushed the food back to Dudley. He was trying to be good!

Dudley slid it back just as insistently, "If you keep working like this you're going to wind up in the hospital. You have to eat. Dad won't find out, I promise. I'll say I ate the food myself. I'll even bring the tray into my room."

Harry gave his cousin a skeptical look. In all the years he'd lived with the Dursleys, Harry's cousin had never done a thing to help him out. Harry had no reason to trust Dudley now. No reason, except that the smell of the food was absolutely intoxicating, and Dudley was pushing it closer still, seeming to forget his initial fear of his cousin. It smelled like.. Beef, that was it. And peas. Harry's stomach gave a little growl of anticipation.

"That's it," Dudley encouraged quietly, "Go on, have a bite. Have a few. Mum and Dad are both asleep, they won't know the difference."

That was all it took, really. Before Dudley knew what was happening, Harry had pulled the tray towards him and ripped off the top. Not beef and peas, he realized with a bit of disappointment. Beef stew with peas in it. Still, it was warm, and he hadn't eaten in days. And there was a dinner roll to go along with it, and an apple. Harry dug into the meal like some sort of savage beast, so that Dudley himself looked sickened by the display.

He was only halfway through the meal when Dudley pulled it away from him. Harry gave a little growl in the back of his throat, but, although he looked shaken, Dudley didn't give the food back. He handed Harry a bottle of water instead. "If you eat too much after not eating for so long, you'll get sick. And that'll be even worse for your body than not eating. That's why I just gave you soup. Drink some water to keep the roll down, but drink it slow."

Harry would never know where his cousin had learned about stuff like that. He'd always had the impression that Dudley was rather thickheaded. He wasn't about to question it, though. After all, he wouldn't much like to sick up at this point in time, and at least Dudley had fed him something. He drank the water slowly, as instructed, so it wouldn't get taken away from him. Dudley let him have the whole bottle.

"Alright," Dudley whispered, "Let's get you in bed properly now."

As he stepped closer to Harry, beads of sweat formed at Dudley's temples. He rubbed at it nervously with one pudgy hand, the other moving up to muss his bleach blond hair. Still, there was a determined glint in his pale blue eyes that Harry hardly recognized. He didn't even flinch when he finally reached Harry and had to physically lift him onto the old mattress, although he paled quite a bit.

"Get some sleep," Dudley said hoarsely, putting a pillow beneath his cousin's head and blankets over his body.

Harry needed no more encouragement. He didn't see the worried look in his cousin's eyes as he shut the lights off in the bedroom and set off down the hall, the tray of food and water bottle held in his beefy arms.

Vernon was quite pleased with the progress he was making with his nephew. The boy seemed to have become much more respectful in the past week. Obviously the lack of food was encouraging the boy, as well as the extinction of… undue distractions. Yes, Vernon was pleasantly surprised at how well the freak was doing. He could almost pass for normal, now.

Vernon decided to see how well the boy did with food. He wanted to see if progress would be lost with the addition of food to the daily routine, or if the Potter boy would manage to continue as he had been. It would be an important test. If the freak was able to remain polite even when fed, Vernon would make a point of giving him three square meals a day. If not…

He called the freak in around suppertime and sat him in a corner of the kitchen with a plate of leftover chicken wings. Potter looked almost as though he didn't know what to do with the food. That was annoying. It wasn't as though he never fed the boy! Yet there he went, glancing from the pile of food to his uncle and back again.

"Eat it, boy!" Vernon growled, a dangerous look in his eyes.

The boy set in, then, pulling the bones apart with his grubby hands and yanking great chunks of meat off with his teeth. Vernon turned away in disgust. Well, maybe not three square meals a day. The child's manners were atrocious. Obviously a side effect of going to that freak school- he and Petunia had certainly never taught him to behave like that. O, well. He'd fix it soon enough.

Hagrid was having one hell of a time with the owl he had adopted. Now that she had been fed and had slept a few days, she seemed anxious to be leaving. Hagrid could hardly allow it, seeing how she was still covered from head to foot in those terrible black burns. He couldn't even tell what kind of owl she was beneath all that scar tissue.

He wondered if she was anxious to be getting back to her master. Probably. Hagrid didn't know if he thought very highly of the master, allowing the owl to be treated like that. Of course, it might not have been their fault. It might have happened on her way here, or something to that effect. Still, he didn't want her to go back until he was quite sure of where she belonged and what might have happened to her. In the interim, he was stuck with a less than cheerful companion. It wasn't exactly what he'd dreamed would become of his summer.

Dudley had never seen his father treat his cousin quite so brutally before. It was a bit sick, really. Even if Harry was a total freak, he was just a kid, wasn't he? He was only thirteen, same age as Dudley. Dudley couldn't imagine going for days on end without food, or having to do chores all the time, and that was nothing in comparison to the beatings he'd see his father giving Harry.

Well, Dudley could hardly stand by and let his parents get away with treating Harry like that. Anyone could see that the freak was breaking under the pressure. Dudley had learned how dangerous stress was in Health class, and Harry was definitely stressed. Dudley didn't think he could stand it if Harry wound up in some mental ward. Or, worse, if he didn't, because he'd died first from malnourishment or something. It seemed likely at this point.

Could freaks die from malnourishment? It seemed like if they could pop themselves from one place to another when they were scared enough, or vanish glass from a python's cage when they were annoyed enough, they ought to be able to make food appear if they were hungry enough. He supposed he must be wrong, though, because Harry definitely wasn't eating. Half the time he couldn't even get into bed without assistance, even with Dudley sneaking him food whenever it was possible to do so.

Something had to give. Dudley didn't know what it was, but something had to change. Harry couldn't continue carrying on like this. Dudley just wished he knew how to make his father stop… Why weren't there other freaks around checking on Harry?

Today, Hagrid would know what kind of owl had been brought under his wing, so to speak. He had been healing her for almost two weeks now, and was making a great deal of progress. She was now breathing properly, at a normal weight for owls, and free of broken bones. Last night, her body had finally been healthy enough to stand a strong healing potion within, and the amount he'd given her should have been enough to get rid of all those nasty burns.

Hagrid got out of bed and went to the perch he'd set up for her in the kitchen window and was surprised to note that she wasn't there. In fact, she wasn't anywhere within the cabin. There was a nasty sinking sensation in his stomach as he realized that she had escaped his cabin. There was a likelihood that she'd be going back to the same place that had abused her in the first place. Owls were notoriously loyal to their masters. It made him sick to think that he'd allowed her to fly to her death.

All Dudley knew was that his cousin was no longer responding to him. Oh, he'd do something if Dudley gave him a direct order, but he was no longer thinking for himself. The thought made Dudley sick. Had his parents done this? Was this the result of their alleged discipline?

Dudley was getting desperate. He was pretty close to calling the muggle police on his own parents. He no longer cared what kind of trouble his parents got into, and he certainly wasn't worried about what the neighbors thought. No, his fear was what would happen to Harry. No foster families could be expected to deal with his freakishness. And what would happen if Harry was put in a loony bin? Someone had to be there to look after Harry.

So far, that someone was Dudley. Midnight found Dudley once again in his cousin's room, spoon feeding him left over mashed potatoes. It was the best Dudley could do, feeding his cousin, dressing his wounds, and putting him to bed every night, but it wasn't enough. Nothing was ever enough.

Something was tapping on the window. Dudley looked up sharply, afraid that the noise would awaken his parents, but to his relief he could still hear his father's deep, thundering snores, followed by his mother's high pitched ones. Safe, for now, but he still had to figure out the source of the tapping.

Harry was hardly going to protest if Dudley left him alone in the bed for a few minutes. Harry wasn't even speaking anymore. Dudley slowly unfurled himself from the wicker backed chair he had been sitting in and strode across to the window. What he saw took him by complete surprise. An owl! Not just any owl, either. Harry's owl. Harry's owl whom they had been told had died.

Dudley Dursley was scared to death of birds, and even if he hadn't been, he would have been scared of this one. She had a sharp looking beak and talons and fierce amber eyes. He'd heard Harry talking to her, before everything had gone awry, and had to assume that she had some sort of magical-induced near-human intelligence. She was also, Dudley knew, fiercely loyal to his cousin.

To this end, Dudley pushed away his fear of birds and opened the window a crack so he could speak with her. It seemed as though his opportunity to do more had finally come, and he was hardly going to give it up because he had slight misgivings about the package it came in. So, he'd have to do this the wizarding way. He'd have to write a letter to the people in Harry's world, and sent it with the owl. The idea made him sick for a second, but when he looked over to see Harry's battered form upon the bed, he didn't worry about it any more. Time to talk to the bird.

"Um, Owl," he whispered through the crack in the window, "Sorry, I can't remember if you have a name… Anyway, Harry's really hurt. My Dad did it. I need to write to people in your world to get him help, I think… I need your help… And, look, I know I was never very nice to you before, but I need you to help me out for Harry's sakes. So, I'm gonna let you in now, and I'm gonna hope you don't eat my face off, and I'm gonna hope you don't make noise, either, because my parents are sleeping and Dad really will kill you if he finds you here… And Harry too."

Dudley felt like an idiot talking to an owl, and even more so expecting the owl to understand, but there was nothing for it. This was the only chance he had of saving his cousin. Regardless of the fact that he and Harry had never got on in the past, he wasn't about to let the kid die. He opened the window all the way and allowed the bird to fly into the room.

He had to go back to his own room to get a sheet of notebook paper and a pen. It was nerve-wracking to walk up and down the hall like that, his muscles tensed as he listened for any sign of his parents' waking up. He made it, though, and sat down at Harry's desk to write.

Dear Wizarding People-

Hi. My name's Dudley Dursley. I'm Harry Potter's cousin. I thought you ought to know that he's being beaten up and starved by my father.

Well, that sounded absolutely idiotic. Not to mention blunt. With a little sigh, Dudley crunched the note up in his hand and chucked it on the floor. On second thought, he picked it up and tucked it into his pocket.

To Whom It May Concern-

My cousin's getting beat up. His name's Harry Potter. He lives at 4 Privet Drive.

Well, at least the entry sounded okay this time. The rest of it, however… Dudley crumpled that paper as well and tried one last time.

To Whom It May Concern-

Harry Potter is having difficulties at home. His guardians aren't guarding him. Please send help.

-Dudley Dursley

Dudley looked at the note skeptically. Well, no one had ever said he should be a writer. Still, it would have to do. At least it got the point across. Now the only problem was getting it to someplace beneficial to his cousin. He never had asked how owl mail worked, but he supposed you needed an address of some kind. He didn't know of one.

Then again, if the owl really was smart, she might be able to figure it out for herself. He approached her with a great deal of apprehension, holding the letter out in front of him like a peace offering.

"It's a letter saying that Harry needs help," Dudley explained, "I don't know who the right person to send it to is. A teacher, maybe? Somebody who can help. Can you take it for me?"

The owl didn't answer, of course. She did, however, swoop down from her perch on Harry's bed and pluck the letter gracefully from between Dudley's fingers. Without so much as a sound, she was gone into the night.

Dudley breathed a little sigh. "I'll take that as a yes, then."