The Sugar Quill
Author: Tapestry (Professors' Bookshelf)  Story: Burning Day  Chapter: Default
The distribution of this story is for personal use only. Any other form of distribution is prohibited without the consent of the author.

Burning Day

Burning Day

***

Disclaimer: Hogwarts and the Harry Potter universe belong entirely to JKR and Warner Brothers. I am merely playing in their world and no copyright infringement is intended.

Acknowledgments: A million thanks to the world’s best beta and editor, Renee, for helping me keep Fawkes’s vernacular firmly planted where it should be and for being a cheerleader when I need it and a critic when I need it more. Thanks also to Sarah, my grammar guru, who inadvertently stumbled into the HP world through this piece and has emerged unscathed. I am at once flattered and dismayed to have been your first foray in Harry’s world. Sorry for the spoilers, now go read the books! This piece first appeared at the Phoenix Rising Harry Potter Conference in New Orleans, LA, as part of the Paintbrush and Quill Society. It’s entirely thanks to the Phoenix Rising folks I dipped my pen back into the fanfic well. Thanks for reminding me how much fun it is. Finally, thanks to Sasha for the incredible artwork she’s created to accompany this story. She captured Fawkes more fully than words ever can and I was fortunate to have such a great artist to work with! Sadly that artwork isn't available online just yet, however, if Sasha posts her work, I'll link to it so everyone else can admire the loveliness as well.

***

The flames are a relief when they engulf me. My feathers blaze white-hot, making the skin across my back bubble and crack. It is a pain so deep that it borders on ecstasy and obliterates all else. There is always a moment, just before the fire takes me completely, when I can see clearly all the days of my existence, future and past.

On a burning day, I give myself over to the flames with a prayer toward eternity. Tonight, my prayers are silent and my heart alone burns. There is no relief and no rebirth. There is only the knowledge that he is gone from this world forever. And I am alone.

I wheel over the castle, stretching out my wings and remembering those first days so that I might forget the last.

***

Albus rescued me from a cage scarcely bigger than a child’s cauldron. My wings were bruised from beating against the bars. He spoke words soft and low that eased the feather-deep ache and calmed me against my will.

It is no vanity to say that I am beautiful. All phoenixes are. Humans, with their featherless skin stretched over large flightless frames, envy delicate red-gold feathers and the graceful arch of a folded wing. That is why they lock us in cages and hide us in their dark rooms. I thought him hideous the first time I saw him.

Red fur crouched above his eyes and trickled from his chin toward the ground. His nose was crooked like a beak that had been smashed upon a wall, and though he smiled at me, I saw only the unnatural white blaze of teeth. I hated him.

“Be still, little fellow,” he said in a voice like the rasp of an Augery. “Do not fret, I will have you free soon.”

I turned my head from him and stared sullenly at the wall. If I was free - if my tail had not been completely shorn, hobbling flight and magic - I’d have blazed bright as a star and blinded him. It was a pleasing thought. Anger alone kept my head up, my eyes clear. Hope had scurried off long ago, after the first week in the cage with my neck aching from the unnatural angle I was forced to hold it at.

I wonder how much he paid for me? A hundred galleons? More? Money is meaningless to a bird – it can not be eaten when you are hungry, used to softly line a nest or even tucked against your wings like a warming stone. Whatever he paid, it was enough – it freed me from that tiny shop. From that tiny cage. From my tiny thoughts.

As soon as we were outside, he opened the iron door of the cage and I leapt out, falling to the ground like a boulder. My legs had forgotten their function; they curled against my body, useless and crippled.

He gently lifted me up and cradled me against his chest, stroking the feathers on my back and sides. It felt good, but I snapped my beak threateningly. I am not a dog to be petted.

I did not extend my wings to fly; bad enough that I had fallen. I would not shame myself further. My wings had been freshly clipped only that morning and were as useless as my legs.

“You’ve been captive too long,” he said. The anger in his voice drew my head up; it mirrored my own so perfectly. “But you’ll fly again soon. It will only take a bit of care.”

As he spoke to me he walked. I tuned out the actual words, letting his voice hum around me with the discordant music of humans. Eventually, after much walking, we reached a bun shop whose wares stood gaudy in the window, changing colors and adorned with the grinning images of other humans. Doubtless they were famous for some ridiculous thing or other.

“I dare say you are hungry,” Albus murmured, noting the way I stared at the buns. He hummed as he carried me past the display cases in the shop.

“Good morning, Freida,” he called with a smile, nodding his head at a small dumpling of a woman standing behind the nearest counter. Her chin barely reached the top of the case. Two enormous braids flanked her ears, twisted into whorls which mirrored the buns set out before her.

“Cheers Albus,” she called back. “Shall I wrap up one of the sticky buns for you? They’ve extra honey today, fresh from Coralee Eggers farm. She’s taught the bees to rumba and their production’s tripled.”

“Ah, you tempt me unmercifully, Freida! Perhaps I’ll nip down for one later. I have pressing business just now, I fear.”

Frieda snorted, shaking her head so that all three of her chins jiggled about in their own little dance. “Get on with you then, but mind you come back for that bun.”

“You may count on it, m’dear,” Albus said, dipping his head in a small bow.

He slipped through a doorway at the back of the shop and up a winding staircase that creaked with each step. At the top, a passageway extended just far enough to allow for two old doors, set across from each other like a mirror reflecting back on itself. Albus turned to the rightmost door. The wood was water-stained at the bottom and spotted with residual magic.

A single word, wandless, unlocked the door and set it creaking open. My first impression was that we had entered a stationer’s; quills and parchment, books and scraps of paper lay scattered about the room. Albus placed me upon a blazing purple couch dominating the small space. It was the only thing not covered in books and might have made a good nest, given enough time and liberal shredding. I never had the chance to find out.

Pulling a wand from his robes, Albus drew an odd shape in the air, and a moment later a golden perch stood before us. Delicate scrollwork covered the surface like tiny flames. I was pleased when he placed me on it. Not that I was staying – not that I would need it. The moment my tail grew back I would blink out of his shabby little rooms and into the heart of some wide forest where I could pretend humans had never existed.

“You’ll be a while in waiting for that tail to come back,” Albus advised, watching me as though he knew my thoughts.

I turned my back to him and tucked my head beneath a wing.

***

Those first days in the flat winged by like a hawk. Albus offered me sprigs of freshly-cut rosemary and thyme. The nearly-forgotten weight of food in my belly sent confused thoughts tumbling through my head. It was harder to hate him when he was unfailingly kind.

He was also unfailingly busy. He came and went so often that at times it seemed as though I was back in the shop with its constantly opening and closing door. In one corner of the room, a cauldron continuously bubbled with some potion or another. Curious little instruments whirled and danced, balanced on the desk and bookcases like metal starlings.

Even in his absence, Albus made sure I was taken care of. Every morning fresh food and water appeared in tiny golden bowls beside my perch. At first, I was glad to have the flat to myself at those times. I would crane my neck until it ached from peering at the things around me. There was a pile of books that tottered in an ever-growing tower beside his small black desk. Next to those a wooden-backed chair leaked stuffing like tiny heaps of snow from its cushion seat. At the chair’s base a teacup and saucer sat on the floor, stained with some long ago drink.

When he was there, Albus worked at the desk. My perch sat close by. He spoke to me as he read from scrolls of parchment or tinkered with some new instrument he’d acquired.

“I wonder, dear fellow,” he said one day, “if you have a name? It seems a great rudeness to speak to you without one.”

I had been peering over his shoulder at the silver wheel he was fiddling with. He kept adjusting the inlaid spokes into different patterns and then shaking the thing as though trying to rattle something out of it. Was this another kind of human music? His question caught me off guard. I looked at him, our faces so close my beak would have grazed his cheek if I’d angled it even a space. Our eyes were locked in silence for a while – mine defiant, his considering. At last he smiled gently and looked away.

“No name at all,” he said, “even to yourself.”

I drew my neck back quickly, shifting on my perch so that I balanced on the far side of it.

“That,” he added, “simply will not do. You may be a temporary guest, but that is no excuse for ignoring the niceties. I must call you something other than bird.”

Bird. What was wrong with that? It was accurate in its way. I was proud enough to dislike the commonality of the term. At the same time, I didn’t want him to call me some idiotic human appellation like Speckles or Rover. And naming smacked of ownership.

“Fluffy, Cuddles, Red,” he muttered, a twinkle in his eyes. Ugh! Each worse than the last. If he called me Cuddles I would be justified in pecking his eyes out. “Ember, smoke, fire, flame, conflagration, burn, inferno-” the stream of words poured out of him like a ribbon of thought, spinning the sound of fire into a song. It had a nice crackle to it, but none of the words fit. “Guy Fawkes, powder, parliament,” he rattled on.

He paused after the last, looking considering. “Fawkes. What do you suppose? I dare say you have some subversive tendencies.”

I snapped my beak at him, and he smiled. “Fawkes it is. For a time. Only for a time. Just until you can pass through that window there,” he said gesturing at the window that filled one wall, “as I know you so want to.”

He had seen me looking, then. The window was fitted with purple curtains that fluttered at the tips as though a permanent breeze pulled at them. A gold catch glimmered each morning as the sun rose, mocking me with the simplicity of its design. Surely a beak could easily pry the thing up? My legs had at last begun to regain some feeling, and I had been celebrating by shuffling from one side of my perch to the other, eyeing the window all the while.

Given my choice, I’d wink out. But my tail was, at present, a scraggly handful of gold feathers as scrawny and nascent as a hatchling’s. The window was a more likely bet. It wouldn’t take as long for my wing tips to grow back. Just then, however, the window remained beyond my reach.

One morning I woke to the sound of Albus singing in the shower. His voice was a full octave past bearable, no matter how enthusiastically the tune was sung. I sang a low warbling note, the first a phoenix learns when it leaves its egg. It is the song of possibility and discovery. Instant silence fell all around me, so that my voice alone filled the air and chased dust motes drifting in the early light.

“Ah, Fawkes,” Albus sighed, emerging from the flat’s tiny bath with his gingery hair on end and his beard tucked over one shoulder. “Music is the truest magic.”

I warbled an assenting note before I could help myself.

He merely grinned at me and launched once more into his off-key screeching, “Oh there once was a sorcerer, came from Loch Lye. And he danced with the squid as they swam by.”

I hopped from my perch to the desk and then to the couch, shoving my entire head under a fluffy cushion and trying to burrow my way inside. It muffled his voice but could not drown it completely. He laughed between stanzas, with a rich, low chuckle.

There were many mornings like that. I sang each day, hoping that I could show him what proper song was and somehow, by melody alone, fix his caterwauling. I was wholly unsuccessful.

By the time my tail had grown to a quarter of its full length, and the first sparks of my magic had begun to return, I was used to our morning routine. There must have been a silencing charm on his walls, for no one ever complained of the noise.

Albus emerged from his rooms on that day in a more somber set of robes. There were no spangles, no stars or moons, and no song. I actually mourned its absence. He was gone by mid-morning with only a distracted murmur of parting and a shadow of his normal smile.

He didn’t return that night. Or the next. Food and water had appeared in my bowls each morning as they always did, but the herbs tasted bitter and I merely picked at them. Dust had begun to coat the desk when he staggered back into the flat a week later. His face was moon pale and deeply lined.

“Hello old fellow,” he panted, collapsing onto the couch. “You are a most welcome sight.”

His skin was graying rapidly and I could not help the anxious kick of my heart. When had he begun to matter to me? When had he become more than temporary landlord and provider?

I stretched out my wings and flew to sit beside him on the couch, pretending not to notice the way his eyes widened at the action.

“You’ve learned to fly again,” he murmured. “Our time is at its end, then.”

I ignored his words, though they troubled me. All I could focus on was his unnatural pallor. The scent of blood hung heavily on him, still fresh as though he had walked among a field of Red Caps. His robes were ripped and torn, their dark color hiding the damage well. Near his heart, an inky stain spread, wet and glistening in the light.

I reached forward and pulled at his robe with my beak, trying to find the source of the wetness, that sweet, sickly smell.

“I should have suspected Grindlewald was using dragons,” Albus said. “It was a foolish mistake and one I will not make again.” His look turned fierce.

I had managed to pull the robe open despite the unconvincing flap of his hands attempting to shoo me away. A gash, deep and raw, like a furrow freshly plowed in a field, stretched across his torso. I knew then what the smell was that teased me. Some dark magic must have been woven into the dragon’s spikes to make it more lethal. No spell would easily heal such a wound.

Albus would die, as surely as the sun would set that evening. No one could survive such a thing. I did not think as I bent my head and laid it on his chest. Blood soaked my feathers, making them heavy as large tears seeped from the corners of my eyes and fell onto his skin. Everywhere the tears touched, his skin hissed and sizzled, sealing itself anew. I moved slowly and carefully, making sure that my tears fell on every millimeter of the gash. Magic counteracting magic, my tears chased away the dragon’s poison and left only new skin in its place.

When at last his chest was healed, I drew away and clambered back onto my perch. I drank from my golden bowl and then began grooming each feather on my wings, pulling them neatly into place. It was as good an excuse as any not to look at him.

“Thank you, Fawkes.” Albus said. His voice was still raspy, but stronger than it had been.

Humans sometimes fill the air with useless chatter. Albus had never been one to do so and I appreciated that. As before he was silent – there were so many things unspoken between us, but I have no voice for human words and he had none for phoenix song.

That evening, as Albus tended the cauldron and added various powders and preparations to its glistening green contents, he often looked up at me. I stared back beadily, refusing to drop my gaze. Despite my feigned indifference, I was embarrassed at the need to reassure myself he was still there.

“I have left the window unlatched,” Albus said, before retiring to bed. “You have only to push the pane open a little way and you’ll be free. I will not ask you to stay, when I know your heart is set on flight. I am grateful beyond words for your assistance today. Merlin’s mercy upon you, dear fellow, wherever you may land.”

He closed his door and left me with the dark evening and that window sitting so close. I did not quite believe him, but when I investigated I discovered the latch had been left undone. It was the work of only a moment to shove the window pane outward enough to allow me passage.

The night air teased me, bringing the scent of burned mackerel, cabbage and old leather to my nose. It was so different from the sleeping green smell of the forest. It took a great effort, more than it should have, to scramble over the casement and fling myself into the evening air. The muscles in my wings protested as I flapped them, reminding me they’d seen little use in the past months. Wind lifted me above the crouched buildings, tossing me at the moon, and I sang a note of joy that trilled out as round and full as that great orb.

I wheeled and flew for hours. When dawn threatened to overtake the city and my chest was tight with exhaustion, I turned back toward the flat. Would the window still be open? Did I want it to be? Anxiety began to twist around my beak as I drew closer. What if I couldn’t find my way back?

Despite my baseless worries, I located the flat easily. The inner compass that had been with me all my life worked then as it always had. The window was still ajar, as though I’d only just left. Relief burst through me like a geyser. I sat a long time on the casement looking inside the room and inside myself. Somehow, in the intervening days and weeks, I had grown used to this small space. To a ginger-haired man that sang as poorly as a cat and hadn’t the sense to take care of himself. What would happen next time he staggered home wounded and there was no phoenix waiting to heal him? What then?

“Still here, Fawkes?” Albus said, startling me so much that my talons made deep indents in the soft wood. “I’d have expected you to be halfway to Bermuda by now.”

He was sitting on the couch, his blue eyes twinkling at me. How long had he been there?

I cocked my head and gave him my haughtiest look, but he merely chuckled. “Just one more day then,” he said. “Stay one more day with me and fly off tomorrow.”

I considered. Tomorrow my wings would be stronger. Tomorrow I would have another day’s food in my stomach. It was sensible to wait that extra day before setting off on a long journey. The sort of forest I was searching for was bound to be quite far away.

As though it were my idea, I sidled over the casement and picked my way across his books and desk to my perch. I preened and straightened my feathers while he continued to watch. At last he got to his feet and stopped beside me. He stroked a hand across the feathers on my back and down one wing.

“I’m glad you came back,” he said quietly, and then no more.

One day stretched into many, and eventually we both stopped marking them. One day I woke and found that I no longer resented being a human’s companion for he was as much mine as I was his. There was a certain pride in that. He was a great wizard.

***

He was. The words send my mind skittering back to the present and the inexorable truth that Albus is gone, this time forever. Grief overwhelms me. I open my beak to sing, remembering his discordant voice joined with my own. As I fly over the castle and the grounds I sing of a loss incomprehensible and absolute. My tears fall with no purpose now, unable to heal either of us. I will sing until dawn stretches her fingers over the sky. I will sing for Albus. I will sing for me. And then, I will simply fly.

//
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