With a powerful flap of her wings, Hedwig soared straight into the midnight velvet of the sky. After days of imprisonment in that hateful cage, the sudden freedom inebriated her. She was light as air, and more powerful than a Hippogriff. Let Harry try to put her back behind bars now! She won't answer his calls for a good long time. He'll have to beg her forgiveness before she'd agree to carry even one letter.
For a long time, she floated over green forests where ancient trees grew tall from mossy shadows. She flirted with a playful hummingbird on the edge of a gurgling spring. And then, as crickets started jazzing in the grass, she discovered the lake of golden shores. There were stars above that Hedwig didn't know, and stars below in the mirror of the lake, so many and so bright that her eyes hurt from the glittery dust. What sky was this that she couldn't recognize? For the first time in her life, Hedwig felt lost. No owl that she knew had ever gotten lost. Even when they grew frail with age and could barely fly more than a few miles, owls always knew where they were.
But Hedwig didn't. The shame swamped her, until she had to alight on a branch and hide her head beneath her wing. What will she do now when Harry asked her to deliver a letter for him? How would she know where to go? She hooted in despair, wishing that she could be back in Privet Drive, where everything was familiar.
... She was back in Privet Drive! Hedwig blinked twice, then launched straight in the air and flew a great circle above number 4. She will go straight to his window, and she will forgive him as quickly as her dignity allowed. Then she will... But the window was closed, and the house was dark.
The moment of panic was banished as soon as it bloomed. Of course the house is empty, silly girl! Everyone left, remember?
Memories flowed clearly into her brain now, but with them the uneasiness increased. They had left, yes, and Harry's voice had been tense with fear for the friends that had come to accompany him. She suddenly recalled the general confusion after several of them had borrowed Harry's face, and her indignation when they'd taken out stuffed owls from a bag! She would have bashed them over the head, had she not been shut in that blasted cage. Still, it was a mystery to her why wizards sometimes took each other's faces, as if that could fool anyone. She had no trouble identifying Harry - could have picked him out of a whole flock. Then she remembered that wizards often behaved like idiots, and they seemed to understand very little of the world. Perhaps they were unable to see beyond such silly tricks.
Where had all those people gone, though? There had been talk of the Burrow, that much she was sure of. She blinked once, thinking of the warm, happy place that always made Harry smile, then opened her eyes and faltered in mid-air. The Burrow was right in front of her beak! Dizzy with anticipation, she arrowed straight towards Ron's window. She couldn't wait to greet Harry, and give him a friendly nip on the ear. Then she will seek Pigwidgeon and brag about how she had learned to Apparate - because surely that was what she'd just done! ... But the windows of the Burrow stood empty.
She went to Hogwarts next, then to Grimmauld Place, and even once to Hermione's house. But their windows were all closed and devoid of Harry.
After a while, she stopped looking and went back to the tall trees and the gurgling spring. She became friends with the hummingbird and a pair of unicorns, and was on speaking terms with a Kneazle. The Jarveys she avoided at all costs, since their chatter annoyed her greatly. However, getting rid of them was usually easy: all she had to do was wish them somewhere else, and pouf! they disappeared. Little by little, she came to understand her new world and its wonders. Hedwig no longer felt lost.
Then one day it happened. Harry's voice reached her, deep and calm. Her heart beating wildly, Hedwig wished herself into his presence with all her might. She opened her eyes to dense mist, but she could hear her boy just beyond it. He sounded serene, and the voice answering him was also known and dear to Hedwig. It was Professor Dumbledore. Hedwig beat her wings harder and harder, but the fog grew thicker and the voices remained distant. Then everything went quiet, and she felt herself wrenched back to her favorite perch at the edge of the forest. The glittery stars reflected in her eyes for a long time, as the calls of her friends remained unanswered. What good was this beautiful place, if there were no letters to deliver, and no one to deliver them to? She even longed for her cage, whose bottom was always strewn with treats from Harry.
For many nights after, Hedwig's heart was leaden. She knew her friends worried, but she could only think of her lost boy. The Kneazle understood best, as he, too, had lost a boy once upon a time. Yet his memories were dim, and he was surprised that Hedwig hadn't forgotten anything. That always made her hoot in indignation: of course she hadn't forgotten, she was an owl after all! Hadn't he ever heard of an owl's memory?
One evening the pair of unicorns brought her to the shore of the starry lake. She didn't want to go, but unicorns could be stubborn. The stardust made her heart beat faster, and when the golden beam burst forth from the lake, she forgot to close her eyes.
"Fawkes!" she hooted in wonder, as the Phoenix emerged from the waters.
His trill flowed over the lake and sand, then echoed back from the forest until it filled the skies. Hedwig's heart swelled with it, and her feathers stood on end, as if her body was trying to contain the wonderful hope now pouring through it. The Phoenix sang a soft greeting to the unicorns, then looked kindly at Hedwig.
You will see Harry again, his eyes told her. When he has finished his first adventure, he will come flying from beyond. Then your heart will bring you to him whenever you wish. But you must be patient, for he has a long path left to walk.
And before Hedwig had time to thank him, Fawkes burst into flames and disappeared into the lake.
She was content from that day on, and went back to her circle of friends with gratitude. Whenever Fawkes visited, she greeted him at the lake. He never stayed long, but she nagged him every chance she got, until he started bringing her news of her boy. He would look at her, sigh impatiently, then trill, "He's happy." It was wonderful to hear at first, but hardly enough after a while.
She took to flying over the lake whenever he was due to appear. That gave her more time to ask questions.
"What do you mean by 'happy,' exactly? Is he eating enough? Who takes care of him? Who delivers his letters? Who...?"
'Happy' means happy, Fawkes would reply, a bit less patiently as time wore on. He's married now.
As if that answered everything. Males!
Yet strangely enough, it was a male who finally brought her all the answers. One crisp day, he flew straight into her side, then tumbled like a drunken gnome. She caught him in her beak by instinct, then squawked in surprise and nearly dropped him. It was Pigwidgeon! From that moment on, she never lacked for details. Fluffing with the importance of his news, Pig chattered incessantly, until her head ached. She sometimes snapped and wished him into a different forest, but she always relented and he never held a grudge. Her friends welcomed him readily, though none of them could understand their common obsession with their former families.
Pig mostly talked about his own boy. But Hedwig was happy to let him, since Ron had been Harry's loyal friend and she had liked him a great deal. Besides, stories of Ron often had mentions of Harry. According to Pig, Ron had become a great and famous wizard, and Harry was doing OK. She was tempted to swat the little bragger, but she let that one fly. Of far more importance were news that Harry had married Ron's sister. Hedwig had mused about that one for a long time. She remembered being rather fond of Ginny, but that didn't mean the girl was good enough to take care of her boy.
Pig, however, got huffy when she expressed her doubts aloud. The little chatterbox even had the gall to imply that perhaps her boy wasn't good enough for his girl! They didn't speak for two days afterwards, but they couldn't hold on longer than that. Hedwig needed to hear the stories, and Pig was bursting to tell them.
"Does Harry still brood a lot?" Hedwig asked the day after they reconciled, deciding to approach the issue more diplomatically.
"Brood?" Pig's eyes had rounded in confusion. "But Harry never broods. He laughs like Peeves, or so my Ron says."
Hmm, Hedwig thought, that didn't necessarily mean the girl was good to him. Still, at least she wasn't making him sad.
"But is he still skinny?" she asked next.
Pigwidgeon hooted with laughter. "Ginny said that if he wasn't such a whale, he could maybe reach around his big fat bottom and draw his wand in time to block her," he reported happily. "Though I didn't think he was that large before she jinxed him and made him round like a ball," he added quickly, wanting to avoid another fight.
"She jinxed him?" Hedwig swelled indignantly. How dared that girl?
"He started it," Pig protested. "Even Ron thought that Harry deserved it, if he hadn't learned anything after ten years of marriage. A man should never tell his wife that she is getting too big to fit through the door. Ron only said it once to his Hermione, and that was years ago," Pig blinked confidentially. "Then he learned his lesson. Hoo, did he learn." He bobbed his head wisely.
Hedwig brooded in silence. As hard to admit as it was, Pig had a point. If Harry had been stupid enough to make such a comment, perhaps he needed a little shake. And her boy was apparently still laughing, even with a wife who jinxed him.
"So is the girl really getting that big?" she asked with faint disaprovement.
"Well, witches always get big before their chicks hatch."
"She's giving him a chick? My Harry is going to have a young one of his own?" Hedwig's tone mellowed considerably.
"One? This is the third!" Pig exclaimed. "Didn't I tell you they have two boys? No? Oh, well, must have forgotten," he squawked happily, hardly noticing Hedwig's wonder. "Every time they're waiting, Harry says he wants a little Ginny, but only little Harrys have arrived so far. I wonder if the new chick has hatched already. It was nearing the time when I left. I wish I could find out if it was a..."
But Hedwig was no longer listening. She felt warm and tender inside, like the first time she'd listened to Fawkes. That flaming show-off had been right, too: happy was happy. Her boy had three chicks of his own, and a wife who jinxed him, and he ate well, and he laughed a lot. "I always thought that girl was perfect for him," she hooted happily.
As time went by, their circle of friends grew wider. Crookshanks arrived one day looking grumpy, and immediately set about cleaning his fur. He had apparently been chasing a gnome, and had been caught in a mudslide. It was rather embarrassing for a Kneazle, but Pig told them in secret that Crookshanks had already been on his ninth life, since he liked to live dangerously. They also met a family of Bowtruckles, and a Crup who kept chasing his tail. Hedwig thought he was barking mad.
So when the call came, it caught her completely by surprise. She no longer thought of Harry every day, and the memories were faded and misty, as if from a story she had heard long ago. But his voice broke through the mists loud and clear. It was deeper than before - the voice of a man, not a boy - yet she would recognize it anywhere. Yearning, fierce and wild as in the beginning, seized her and drove her to the lake.
She knew she shouldn't consider it. The lake was dangerous, and she could get caught in its mirror forever... Fawkes was the only one who could pierce it with impunity. No, she was mad to even think about...
"Hedwig, oh Hedwig!" Harry moaned.
She dove. The waters enclosed her like walls, and her wings lay flat at her sides. But his voice called her, like he hadn't called her in so long. She remembered, as she moved through the glassy lake. She remembered a little boy's hand smoothing her feathers in awe. She remembered that hand, a little longer, a little thinner, sharing the bit of food he had with her. She remembered the hand giving her letters full of hope, of anger, of despair. And then she remembered, too, how the hand had locked her cage before that last flight and the terrible green light. But his voice had promised she'd soon be free, and his voice had never lied.
"I'm here, Harry," she hooted as the waters parted and swirled. There was now just a thin mist between them, but she saw him clearly through it.
Her boy was a man! She didn't know why she was surprised. He had been on the brink of manhood when she'd left him, but now his face had filled, and his shoulders had broadened. Her eyes were drawn to the hand he was reaching towards her. It was large and calloused, and she felt the magic blooming from his fingers.
"Hedwig," he called again, though his lips weren't moving, and she understood that it was his thoughts she was hearing. "My beautiful, wonderful Hedwig."
"I'm here," she hooted as she alighted on his arm. But he didn't seem to see her.
"Are you alright, Harry?" a gentle voice asked, and five slender fingers closed around his arm.
Before he could answer, a young boy interrupted tremulously. "Dad, we don't have to buy an owl. I know how you never wanted another one after you lost your Hedwig. Actually, I think a Kneazle would be great!"
Hedwig rotated her head in surprise. Three children she hadn't noticed before were clustered together, looking at a beautiful snowy owl in awe.
"No, James," Harry said softly, wiping his eyes before he faced the children. "This is your pet we're buying. Just because I don't want another owl, doesn't mean you can't have your own. That snowy one looks right smart, she does! I bet she'll be a great friend."
She'd better be! Hedwig thought, giving the young bird a stern look. The owl startled and turned her head, then slowly blinked once in acknowledgment.
"If James gets an owl, then can I get a Kneazle? Oh please Mum, can I, can I?"
"If Lily gets a Kneazle, then I want a Kneazle, too... and an owl," the smaller boy said.
"Al, you know you can get either a Kneazle or an owl when you're ready to go to Hogwarts."
"And Lily, my li'l one, you have to grow a wee bit bigger before you're ready for a Kneazle."
Hedwig hooted with laughter, and the snowy owl on the counter turned her amused gaze on her. The chicks sure were a handful, and Harry was smiling in exasperation at his wife, as they each tried to calm a young one. Well, it looked like her boy had gotten the little Ginny he'd wanted. No taller than a thimble, she was, but she was glaring mightily at her dad. Hedwig dug her talons into Harry's arm, shaking with glee.
"What is it, Harry?" Ginny asked quietly, as the kids crowded again near the counter.
"Nothing." He shook his head ruefully. "It's just... for a moment there, I felt something on my arm, the way it used to be before Hedwig took flight."
"Oh, Harry," she kissed him tenderly. "I miss her, too."
"I know it's been years, but sometimes I think... If only I hadn't locked her up. If only I'd let her fly to the Burrow... She'd still be alive today. She'd still be... still be young enough to go to Hogwarts with letters for James... and... and boss him around, and... "
"Darling, you know it would have been unlikely for her to escape that trap on her own. Even the Order thought so, that's why they brought all those stuffed owls... Her best chance was with you."
"Some chance," he said bitterly. "She was angry with me when she died, you know? She hated that cage, and I'd promised her that I'd let her out soon... But I never did, did I? She was born free, and I let her die in a cage. And I... I broke my promise to her." He gave a great, wrenching sigh. "Please forgive me, Hedwig."
And that was when she got good and angry. Here he was, on a happy outing with his family, and he was crying? She nipped him hard on the ear, and Harry yelped and stared incredulously straight at her.
"Hedwig," he whispered.
"Yes, you idiot boy," she hooted. "What do you mean you broke your promise? I am free! See?" She flapped her wings to make him understand, and he smiled. "Now stop moping about, and go be happy with your family."
She dug her talons extra hard in his arm, then swatted him upside the head with her wing as she took flight. Hopefully, that would be enough to drive her point home.
Harry's laughter was the last thing she heard as the waters closed around her again. For an agonizing moment she feared she would be trapped inside them, but then a ball of fire swept her straight up into the starry night.
"You idiot bird," Fawkes trilled. "You could have lost yourself. Why did you go into the lake? Didn't I tell you..."
Oh, joy, now he felt like talking. Hedwig gave an inelegant squawk, and decided that she'd thank Fawkes for the rescue some other time. Then, with a powerful flap of her wings, she soared towards the forest where her friends waited.
Her boy was happy. All was well.