- House-Elves & House Arrest -

Harry was having the worst summer of his life.

It hadn't started that way. If anything, the beginning of Harry's summer had been one of the best in memory; absolutely nothing beat terrifying his cousin Dudley by mumbling nonsense under his breath and watching the great lump run pell-mell into the house. Teasing him lost its appeal, though, the fourth or fifth time around, and Aunt Petunia kept screeching at him like he was some kind of terrible hellion. Aunt Petunia wasn't afraid, not really, not after living with Harry's mum as a child. The chores multiplied for him, and soon enough Dudley was back to punching Harry in the arm and throwing an absolute fit whenever he entered the dining room.

In the past, Harry had been able to abide his treatment at his relatives' hands by daydreaming about when he'd finally be able to leave or about nonsensical things that would turn his uncle's face a vile shade of puce if he knew what Harry was thinking. After spending a year at Hogwarts, after learning magic and meeting friends and facing Lord Voldemort, the man who had killed his parents and almost killed him and Ron, Hermione, and their Magical Theory professor, Harry felt restless and time went by slowly in that house. No one had written since the summer's beginning. He watched the skies and no owl ever came. His school things had been locked up beneath the stairs in his old cupboard the moment he crossed the threshold. If not for Hedwig, Harry might have thought Hogwarts a fantastical dream.

For all that, however, Harry's summer didn't truly hit rock bottom until a certain green-eyed house-elf introduced himself.

Harry had no idea what a house-elf was until Dobby popped into the smallest bedroom of Number Four and squealed "Mr. Harry Potter, sir!" Really, Harry still didn't precisely know what a house-elf was besides a meddling little thing with a high-pitched voice who sobbed whenever someone treated him with manners and liked to beat himself over the head with lamps. Dobby had been nicking his mail all summer—and then hurled a pudding at Uncle Vernon's dinner guests after tearfully informing Harry that he must not return to Hogwarts, that great danger waited for him there. In retrospect, Harry was fairly certain he should have smothered his Gryffindor pride and lied to the little creature instead of proclaiming "Hogwarts is my home, and I'm going back!"

The Ministry owl dropping a letter that informed the Dursleys Harry couldn't do magic outside of school was just the proverbial cherry on top of the splattered pudding.

Harry had been trapped in his room for days. It felt like years, really, but he knew years hadn't actually passed—though sometimes he'd pat his chin to make sure he wasn't sprouting a beard like Dumbledore. He missed chores and working in the garden, if only to take his mind off the boring numbness that was sitting in his bedroom, alone, for hours and hours on end, with only two short bathroom breaks to shake up the monotony. Occasionally his aunt shoved food through the cat flap at the bottom of the door, but Harry couldn't measure time by the irregularity of his meals. His stomach clenched with hunger and Hedwig looked thin under the fluff of her white feathers.

Uncle Vernon swore Harry would never go back to Hogwarts. He swore that Harry would spend the rest of his life in that room—and it felt that way to him, too. He would rather die than live like this.

Harry sighed as he dropped his head on the bed at his back. He sat on the floor, dressed in his cousin's cast-offs and in need of a good shower. Dawn waited just past the horizon, the street lamps still vivid outside the bars on his window, the suburb still slumbering. Harry couldn't sleep. He stared at the fading moonlight on the ceiling and rubbed his tired eyes. From the corner, Hedwig made an agitated sound.

"I know, girl," Harry soothed without thought. His owl had it worse off than he did, completely unable to fly and padlocked into a stinky little cage. He pushed himself onto his feet—blinking through a sudden spell of dizziness—and padded across the room to his imprisoned owl. Hedwig glared with baleful golden eyes before shuffling about on her perch, giving Harry her back. "I'm sorry, Hedwig. If I could—."

If he could what? Harry rubbed at his tired eyes again and tried to force his sluggish brain to work. His thoughts had been muffled of late, his reflexes not as keen, and Harry had to wonder if it was because his meals had been scant and measly. What did the Dursleys care if he felt sick with hunger? What did they care if he couldn't practice Quidditch or do his homework or talk with his friends?

I have to get out of here.

He couldn't use magic. He'd never been able to direct his accidental outbursts and he had no idea how to do spells without his wand like Professor Dumbledore or Professor Dullahan. Hermione always said, "That's very impressive magic," but Harry didn't care about being impressive at the moment. He would give his left arm to be able to cast a wandless alohomora, if it wouldn't get him expelled, if he didn't eat that bloody arm first.

This is so stupid. Frustrated, Harry took hold of the padlock on Hedwig's cage and yanked. Hedwig hopped around, startled, and stared at Harry as he grit his teeth and pulled with all his strength. He'd already combed the room and Dudley's old, broken garbage stuffed in the closet for anything he could use to pick the lock—not that he knew how—but Harry hadn't found anything useful. At this point he didn't care if he destroyed the cage. He could get another one if he got out of here.

He pulled on the lock until his arm shook and the metal biting into his skin became unbearable. It rattled when he let go, and Harry sank to his knees, breathing heavily for a moment, then looked at the lock again. It was unchanged, of course, but when Harry went to throw himself back on his bed in a huff, he saw the cage from a different angle, and this time noticed the slight bulge in the bars.

Rising, he ran his fingers over the distorted cage. It wasn't much—but then again, Harry didn't need much. He just needed the bars to bend enough for Hedwig to squeeze through. Owls really weren't all that big beneath the fluff of their feathers, were they? Biting his lip, Harry came to a decision, and lowered Hedwig's cage to the floor. The owl watched him with suspicion and her eyes opened wide as Harry began to gently tip the cage over.

"Okay, Hedwig. I need you to stay quiet. I think I can get you out, yeah? But you gotta be quiet."

Harry stood and studied the cage for a moment, then shuffled it over so one side was braced against the wardrobe. Hedwig let out a low scree of displeasure, but otherwise remained calm, staring at Harry and waiting to see what the scrawny boy would do next. He found a pair of ugly used socks gifted to him by Uncle Vernon and put both on his right foot before slipping his toes between the bars on the cage's side. Hedwig squawked, but Harry quietly shushed her as he gradually put his weight on the bar, lifting himself off the ground, gripping the wardrobe to stop the cage from rolling under the pressure.

The thin bar cut into his foot even through the thick wool of the mustard colored socks, and Harry chewed on his lip as he bounced once, then twice, trying to force the cage open without scaring Hedwig or hurting her. He kept at it despite the growing pain, desperation roiling in my chest like a fiery cough—until, suddenly, the bar gave with a snap! and Harry toppled backward, gasping as he smacked his head on the floor. Hedwig screeched.

Blinking away the spots in his eyes, Harry heard the heavy thump of footsteps, then the slam of a fist striking the door. "You keep that bird quiet, boy! Keep it quiet or I'll wring its ruddy neck!"

"Y-yes, Uncle Vernon," Harry replied as he shook himself and rolled over. Vernon stomped back into his bedroom and slammed the door, the sound echoing through the house, and Harry turned his attention to the cage. It lay empty, a section of the bars bent or snapped, and Hedwig now perched on the back of the desk chair, stretching her wings. Harry could have cried in relief.

Letter. I have to write a letter—. He didn't have parchment or quills, both being locked up tight as could be in the cupboard, but he did have the books Dudley never touched, the ones he had thrown into his spare bedroom like bits of trash. Harry managed to find one in the closet and ripped out the mostly blank cover page. It took longer to unearth a sticky crayon in the bottom of a busted goldfish bowl.

It struck Harry that he didn't know who to write to. Here he had the wrinkled paper, the crayon gripped tight, and he suddenly drew a blank on who he should be sending this missive to. Of course, Ron jumped to the forefront of his mind because Ron was his best mate—but this wasn't about sending a friendly note apologizing for not writing or some such. Harry knew he needed help. He couldn't wait until September to see if Hogwarts would send someone, because Harry might very well be dead by then. If not Harry, then Uncle Vernon would at least strangle Hedwig—and Ron was twelve. He could go to his parents for help, but what could they do? What would they do?

Hermione was the same. She could tell her parents, but what could her parents do? Would the Weasleys or the Grangers even believe Harry? His friends probably would, but what about their families? Harry had told the school nurse about the cupboard once in primary school, and the Dursleys—despite all appearances—had been smart enough to talk their way out of that mess. Harry had been truly terrified Uncle Vernon might strangle him and bury Harry in the yard like an ugly weed after that incident.

He set the crayon down and scrubbed at his face, Hedwig flying over to give him an impatient peck. Okay, if not his friends, then someone from Hogwarts. A professor. He could write his Head of House—or the Headmaster himself. The former Harry knew to be a no-nonsense kind of woman, and the latter a wizard of great esteem, both quite busy with running the school or answering the owls sent to them by the Ministry or by other students. What if Hedwig couldn't reach them? What if they didn't read Harry's letter right away? What if Dobby stopped outgoing mail as well? What if he hurt Harry's owl? What if—?

"I'm thinking about this too hard," he muttered to himself, mouth dry and hand trembling. "Just the first person I can think of who can—."

"That's a lovely owl you have. You're free to write to me this summer, if you need something."

Professor Dullahan had said those words to him just before he'd left the school. Harry, for one breathless, miserable minute, had considered telling her he didn't want to go back, that he didn't want to leave Hogwarts and he most certainly didn't want to live with the Dursleys, but he'd decided against doing so. She had told Harry to write "if you need something," and Harry needed to get out of this room, but would she help? Would she believe him?

A voice that sounded suspiciously like Ron said, "Not bloody likely. She's a Slytherin!"

Professor Dullahan wasn't exactly a Slytherin; she wasn't like Snape—though, at this point, Harry would give his Potions Master a hug if it meant the wretched man would show up with a sandwich.

Another voice, this time Hermione's, sniffed, "She's a professor. She'll at least tell the Headmaster."

But would the Headmaster be able to do anything? Would Dullahan?

Harry scribbled out a note in the hazy predawn light creeping along Privet Drive and folded it before he could give himself time to change his mind. "Here, Hedwig." He held the page out and the owl narrowed her eyes in consideration. "I haven't got anything to tie it to your leg with. Please take this to Professor Dullahan. I think her name's something like Del…Delilah…Delphinia! Delphinia Dullahan, the Magical Theory. At Hogwarts."

Hedwig gave her beak a single clack before snatching hold of it. Harry rushed the owl to the window, which he threw open wide enough for the bird to push through the bars and soar to freedom. She dropped from the window toward the hedge, her wings snapped wide, and she threw herself upward with a single downward beat.

Harry watched Hedwig fly until she disappeared into the coming dawn.