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birds of a feather

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Harry learns a lot of things about himself and others when he turns twelve.

He discovers that incompetent-yet-vaguely murderous professors are probably going to be a staple of his Defense Against the Dark Arts class if the last two years are anything to go by. He learns that talking to animals is okay unless it's snakes, in which case you are apparently cut from the same cloth as the snake-man who murdered your parents. He learns that the only thing worse than Ginny Weasley turning scarlet and refusing to speak in his presence is having her lie cold and still, unable to speak at all, in a chamber at the bottom of the school, while the selfsame parents-killing snake-man steals her lifeforce and sics a really big snake on him.

But above all that, he learns that he hates the hospital wing.

It's his third stay there in two years, and he's two for two in ending up here right at the tail-end of the year after a horrific battle. After his frankly horrifying time here a few months back regrowing all the bones in his arm (Thanks, Lockhart), he'd hoped for a quiet rest of the year where the Chamber stopped opening and the perpetrator dried up and Lockhart stayed far away from him and maybe, just maybe, people would stop running from him like his gaze would Petrify them.

...Yeah. That was probably too much to hope for.

Honestly though, he hadn't thought to be stuck here this time because his most dangerous injuries were already healed, and by one of the few magical creatures more powerful than an experienced Hogwarts mediwitch. Professor Dumbledore's phoenix, Fawkes, had shed tears over Harry's mortal wound barely a few minutes after the basilisk had given it to him—the swiftness of his recovery was a relief then, and again later when he realized he wouldn't have to spend a single minute in the hospital wing except to visit Hermione and Ginny with Ron.

But fortune and phoenix tears only carried Harry so far. Upon seeing his (admittedly) extremely disheveled state (including, but not limited to: school robes and underclothes torn and corroded from his battle with the snake, leftover blood on his face and body from his wound, and a bad case of shaky limbs from leftover adrenaline), Madam Pomfrey had screeched with horror, disapproval and concern and pointed so firmly at a bed that all his arguments turned to ash in his mouth. He'd changed clothes and been stuck in the wing ever since.

"Just to run a few tests," she insists. Checking his blood, making him down potions to prevent burns or scarring, and waving her wand over him in complicated patterns he couldn't follow. He was to be released from her care the moment she was sure he had no lingering ill effects from his 'hare-brained adventure' and not a moment sooner. Of course he'd be released in time for the feast tonight, and could he please stop asking her about it?

"I've half a mind to close the wing as it is and make you all sleep here! We only just got the mandrake potion distributed to everyone and now he calls for a feast! Honestly, that Headmaster of ours, thinking it's a good idea to send recently-Petrified students and the whole of the school out of beds to eat in the middle of the night—"

"I think it's brilliant!" Harry protests stubbornly; what better way to remove the pall of open fear that's settled over the castle than by letting everyone come together with the friends they nearly lost?

In fact, one of the only other reasons he's okay with being bed-bound is due to the presence of two of those friends. The hospital wing is nearly full up with students freshly cured by mandrake potion; that includes one much-missed Hermione Granger, who is sitting up in the bed next to him and eagerly switching between peppering him with questions about the classes she's missed and answering Madam Pomfrey's own questions about how she's feeling. Ginny leans back and stays mostly quiet in the next bed over—after an hour directly under Pomfrey's eye, she's been cleared to return to Gryffindor Tower and eventually attend the feast, but she whispered an intent to wait for Ron or Percy to stop back by and pick her up and nobody protested.

"Oh, but I do hope they'll at least give us time to make up our assignments," Hermione's saying now, "it's hardly our fault that a giant snake stole our time and nearly killed us—"

Harry snorts. "Look on the bright side—maybe I'll get extra credit in Defense for getting rid of that basilisk, and then we can share that at least."

He winces when Madam Pomfrey prods at one of his shoulders with her wand—it's very unlikely she needed to poke him that hard to check for fractures or sprains, so it's definitely because of the joke. But he feels better about it when Hermione laughs and Ginny smiles.

"I don't think we'll have any Defense classes for the rest of term," his bushy-haired friend points out, with no small amount of mixed regret and embarrassment. She's indicating Lockhart, who's introducing himself to a very-bemused Justin Finch-Fletchley and Colin Creevey. "Ron told me about what Professor Lockhart tried to do to you two in the Chamber. Oh, Harry, I never thought he would do something like that, I feel awful..."

"It's not your fault he's a fraud. I mean, maybe you didn't notice because you were kind of moony over him—"

"Oh, thanks!"

"Well, you were—"

"Oh all right!" Her face turns faintly pink; she has to wave Pomfrey off from examining her, which doesn't make it any better. "I admit it, I was distracted by him. I've already heard it all from Ron. That doesn't mean I don't feel bad about almost losing you two."

"You couldn't have known, Hermione," Harry insists. "Nobody knew he was a prat because he made sure nobody would know." He doesn't let up until she relaxes, and he knows that she knows he doesn't blame her. He misses Ron's ability to make light of their troubles, and so tries to channel it with an eye on Madam Pomfrey's wand. "It does kind of suck that every time we ask for help at year's end it doesn't quite pan out. Maybe next year we should just leave a note in one of the classrooms once something terrible happens."

"You mean this is normal?"  Ginny cries, so loudly that Mrs. Norris the cat startles on the floor nearby and Madam Pomfrey firmly orders the girl to drink the rest of her Calming Draught this instant. Hermione takes over the job of soothing her naturally after that.

The mediwitch finally hastens over to Penelope Clearwater's bed at the other end of the wing; Harry blows out a big relieved breath and settles back into his pillows with minimal lingering pain. Finally, some space.

Although he knows she's only doing her job, Madam Pomfrey's overly-solicitous attention to him whenever he's in here always makes him a little uncomfortable; he's simply not used to any adult caring what he gets up to and whether he's okay. —Or at least, he wasn't before Hogwarts. Now he's got Professor McGonagall always giving him odd looks in her classes, and Hagrid inviting him out to his hut for rock cakes when he's not being carted off to wizard prison. And along with them, he's got Professor Dumbledore locking eyes with him in the Great Hall sometimes, giving him that odd x-ray look before smiling and turning his attention elsewhere.

Harry doesn't really know what to do about all this attention, but he's grateful that, other than looking, everyone besides his friends and Hagrid are actually rather dist—

FWOOSH.

Hermione and Ginny shriek. Several of the other students in the wing who are farther away flinch at this flashy, noisy sign of their newest visitor, too—but all Harry can think at first is, Is my lap on fire?

Ten seconds of absolute stillness as his eyes adjust after the flash of fire that appeared directly in front of them are sufficient to convince him that no, he is not about to become a bonfire from the legs up. He rubs them under his glasses; and then again to convince himself he's awake, and really seeing what he thinks he's seeing. Rub, blink. Rub, blink, and—yes. There is a magnificent scarlet bird with gleaming golden tail feathers balancing on his knees.

"Fawkes?"

The phoenix chirps as if to say do you know any other phoenixes that live here? 

Some small part of Harry is definitely screaming What are you doing here???  at the top of its lungs, as the last time Fawkes appeared to him was when he was miles below the castle just a few hours ago; his fight-or-flight instincts haven't really turned off yet. But most of him is inclined to relax. This very bird saved his life; he wouldn't let anything happen to Harry now, especially not in the hospital wing. He even tilts his head now and emits another chirp that sounds more inquisitive, but is no less soothing. Maybe that's just Fawkes' magic or aura or something?

Well. Magic or aura or nothing, this year has taught Harry to associate Fawkes with Dumbledore—and there's no one he feels safer around than Dumbledore.

"Harry!" Hermione hisses excitedly. "Is that really a phoenix sitting on you?"

"Y-Yeah," he manages to say, after a few false starts as Fawkes shifts from one leg to another and he waits for a burning sensation that never comes. "He's Professor Dumbledore's—er, I mean, not that he owns him, it's more like they're friends?"

"Like a familiar!"

"Yeah, that."

"He's the one who carried us out of the Chamber," Ginny tells the other formerly-Petrified patients, all of whom have fallen into a reverent hush and moved closer upon seeing the phoenix making himself at home in the wing. "We might've been stuck down there for ages without his help."

Madam Pomfrey sniffs; her mood is not improved any by having to shuffle from bed to bed resettling and calming her many charges, only to have all her work undone in a minute. "Oh, that bird! You're just as theatrical as your master, Fawkes. Twenty years it's been since you wandered in here and you choose now to make your grand reappearance?"

Fawkes opens his long golden beak and sings without preamble. Three long, lingering notes. Everyone in the hospital wing relaxes, even the mediwitch, and Harry starts to think his theory about auras may not be as ridiculous. While he's thinking over it, his newest companion flutters and hops his way up to Harry's shoulder, hooking his claws gently into the fabric of Harry's pyjamas.

"Did Professor Dumbledore send you?" he tries to ask. He's not entirely sure if Fawkes comprehends human words or intentions—Dumbledore had only said Harry's display of loyalty to him called the phoenix to Harry's aid. All he knows is that he's not in too much pain right now, he's not in need of any aid, and he doesn't think he was thinking especially-loyal thoughts about Dumbledore just now. He admires the man, of course—he thinks he's probably the greatest wizard in the whole world, yes, even able to send him aid while he was away from the school—and yes, perhaps he's a little starry-eyed at being saved by him twice in two years—but wouldn't anyone be? Wouldn't Fawkes just be flaming around the whole school all the time if he was called every time someone sang his master's praises?

"If there's one thing you should learn about Fawkes, Mr. Potter, it's that he goes where he will," the mediwitch tells him kindly, even as she shoots her uninvited guest an exasperated look. "I'd be concerned about your immediate physical welfare if I hadn't just checked you over head to toe—but as it is, perhaps he's only checking in on you himself."

The idea that Fawkes is independently concerned about him makes something warm and floaty settle in Harry's chest. He reaches up as best he can to stroke the phoenix's back, letting his hand twist and his fingers glide over the deeper scarlet feathers. Fawkes responds by nosing into Harry's hair. He hears a few girls awww and blushes.

"Er, thank you," he tells Fawkes sincerely. "I think I'm all right now, but thank you for checking. And being worried." He thinks that will send Fawkes away in another flash of flame, but he doesn't even budge from Harry's shoulder. Just starts making this noise with his throat that sounds like warbling, and keeps mussing Harry's now hilariously-untidy hair. Harry keeps petting. Everywhere the familiar touches feels warmer than normal, like he's put on an extra jumper or sat himself directly in front of a roaring fire.

"Back to your beds, now!" Madam Pomfrey says. She shoos Penelope Clearwater from Ginny's bed to her own, and gives the others such a stern glance that they scurry for cover by themselves. (Lockhart has blessed them all by staying put and so needs no shooing.) Ginny pulls her covers up to her chin without being told, but her smile hasn't evaporated since Fawkes arrived; and Hermione's eyes shine with curiosity, and probably the urge to share a fantastic number of facts about phoenixes. Then again, does Hermione know about them already or is she dying to find out?  He can't tell from her expression.

He wishes Ron was here. He'll go spare if he misses this.

Once she's restored order to the wing, Madam Pomfrey turns toward his bed and pauses; for a moment, Harry is afraid that she'll ask him to send Fawkes away, or call Professor Dumbledore to retrieve him, but she barely looks at him for a minute. After that she sighs soundlessly and waves her hand at the bird as if to say if you must. She disappears into her office; the phoenix starts singing in earnest and doesn't falter for a second.

"Will he stay as long as you're here, Harry?" Justin whispers loudly just across from him. Whatever fear he had of Harry from last term must be long gone if he's willing to risk Pomfrey's wrath.

"Dunno... I hope he does, though."

"Me too," the Hufflepuff boy says around a yawn. A few minutes later, he's sound asleep—and he's not the only one. The other students are succumbing to sleep too, spurred on by the melody Fawkes is weaving. The ever-excitable Colin snores softly next to Justin; Mrs. Norris kicks her spindly legs out a few times in whatever dream she's having; Ginny's hair flares in a red halo around her that rivals Fawkes' wing feathers; and she, Penelope and Lockhart have turned to face Harry and Fawkes before drifting off, the better to take the music in. Even Hermione's eyes are drooping against her will by the time he stops singing and starts fussing. 

Harry feels a tug on his hair and—is he preening me?  he thinks wildly. Several more tugs follow the first.

"Oi! You're the one that messed my hair up in the first place!"

Fawkes nips his ear and he yelps; the bird only trills, unconcerned. Hermione giggles at the pair of them.

"He's just as clever as Professor Dumbledore," she muses.

"Just as cheeky, you mean!" But when Fawkes flutters off his shoulder to settle in his lap, Harry's grinning. The little nip didn't hurt at all, and Fawkes is nudging him back into his pillows now as if to scold him for not resting with everyone else. "And now he's bullying me. I'm already lying down, Fawkes, what more do you want?"

"Probably the same thing the headmaster and Madam Pomfrey and me and Ron and everyone else wants—for you to rest," Hermione lectures while flexing her fingers.

"I don't want to sleep through the feast."

"He probably won't let you. Ron definitely won't when he comes back. Come on Harry, I think he wants all of us to sleep..."

The phoenix tilts his head towards her and back. Stares him down. Tacit agreement. 

"All right," Harry concedes, with no small amount of reluctance. He's still kind of keyed up from the day—slaying the basilisk, stabbing Riddle's diary, freeing Dobby from Lucius Malfoy. He feels tired, sure, but also like he could do a hundred more things before bed. Although that might just be the effect of having an immortal firebird hanging around him that can (and did) heal his every injury.

And there's more to it. He doesn't want to wake up absent one phoenix. Fawkes is strong and brave, and seems like a pretty good listener too. Harry's only known Fawkes for a few months, but he already kind of loves him. Maybe not as much as Hedwig, but Hedwig's mine and I'm hers... she's different.

Fawkes likely doesn't hold Harry's higher loyalty to his owl against him. After all, he and Hedwig chose each other. Fawkes and Professor Dumbledore probably chose each other too, ages ago.

"Good night, Harry," his bookish friend whispers. "Oh—and goodnight, Fawkes."

The phoenix coos in response. He's awfully polite, as well as affectionate.

"'Night, Hermione."

Harry glances over at her. She's got her head resting on one arm now, and looks to be well on her way to the realm of dreams. One down, one to go, he thinks wryly.

When he turns back to his lap, Fawkes is still staring directly at him, standing as straight as a bird possibly can while balanced on someone's legs. His beady eyes are so black that Harry feels like he's falling into them, going down a tunnel into depths he's not normally allowed to access. It's not the same x-ray feeling he gets around Dumbledore; this is warmer and more personal. Fawkes doesn't speak—there's no words in Harry's head, and he doesn't even chirp or trill or squawk—but Harry gets... impressions. Curiosity. Concern. A hint of exasperation, too.

"Sorry," he whispers, and the word seems to break the spell; he's no longer an explorer diving down to depths unknown, but merely an untrained wizard leaning back with messy hair and crooked glasses and a bird in his lap. "I know I can be a bit stubborn."

Phoenixes don't have a wide range of expressions, but Fawkes' slow dip of the head communicates a sarcastic Oh, truly?  better than any glare Snape has given him to date.

"I just wanted, er..."

Fawkes flutters his wings, and pretends to duck his head under one.

"As soon as I say this," Harry promises, and then follows up quickly so as not to test his companion's patience: "Thanks. I know I said before in the Chamber that you were brilliant, but you were... more than that. You saved my life twice. Well, three times if you count bringing me the Sorting Hat. Which I definitely do.

"And you saved Ron too, and Ginny, and Hermione and all the other students in here... even Professor Lockhart... I know I have to sleep, but I'm grateful, all right? I'm really, really..." He pauses, and swallows against a throat suddenly tight with realization. "I... I nearly died. I'll never repay you for saving me from that."

Fawkes hops even closer, and nuzzles into his chest. The extra-warm jumper feeling spreads to his fingers and toes.

He takes his glasses off, and Fawkes becomes a scarlet-and-gold blur. It's a bit of a challenge to adjust himself so he's lying down the way he prefers to without jostling Fawkes off of him, but he manages. And then because the universe always has to have a chuckle at his expense, Fawkes immediately takes flight, resettling himself on the desk next to his glasses and making all his awkward shuffling moot.

"You're... awfully mischievous for a famous magical creature," he informs the bird through a long-withheld yawn of his own. The feeling he gets without even making eye contact is pretty close to amusement.

"Will you thank Dumbledore for me too? For helping me free Dobby and... just helping?"

Fawkes warbles again, an affirmative.

"Right," Harry says around another yawn. Rather than a jumper, he now feels like a heavy curtain has been laid over him. "Night then, Fawkes."

In no time at all, he's sleeping, dreamless and as soundly as everyone else—perhaps the best sleep he's had in eleven years.

He's learned something else this year too: he has more people and creatures in his corner than he could've imagined.

Chapter Text

Harry doesn't remember falling asleep, but he wakes up to a chill he can't describe in words.

His heart hammers like he just finished running laps for Wood. His skin is cold and clammy. In his head, in his dreams, he was tumbling from the sky, spinning and flailing, grasping for a broom that wasn't there. Everything was nearly silent but for a dog's incessant barking and some very disturbing rattling. It was freezing cold and his scar burned liquid fire on his forehead, blinding him while he kept falling and falling and falling—

He puts his head between his knees. Breathe, Potter, he tells himself firmly. Just a dream. Nothing's coming to get you.

Not that that's true.

He's back in the hospital wing, of course. Down to the same bloody bed. The last thing he remembers is Madam Pomfrey shooing away his visitors, group by group. That meant the rest of the Gryffindor Quidditch team, Wood and Angelina and Katie and Alicia and the twins, who'd all taken turns sitting next to him and reassuring him—of course they weren't angry with him for missing the Snitch, just glad he was all right, and they'd already put the match out of their minds, and was he sure he didn't want some sweets from Honeydukes to distract himself overnight? And that also meant Ron and Hermione, who'd plopped down on the empty bed next to him and (with varying degrees of difficulty) chatted with him about anything besides Quidditch or the dementors, while taking turns holding his hand like he'd go tumbling into the air again otherwise.

Harry loves his House-mates and his best mates dearly, and a part of him is touched that they'd work so hard to comfort him and censor their own conversations—and yet, and yet. He can't stop shivering. He feels wrecked. The poison of this term's events is getting to him—the Grim, Trelawney's predictions, the dementors, the screams he hears around the dementors, Sirius Black running rings around Hogwarts' security—and the only way he can see to draw it out is by talking about it. It's more upsetting to him at this point to keep quiet about everything, like it doesn't matter, like it isn't freezing him inside out.

Harry just wants to stop feeling so cold. Cold and scared and... hopeless.

At least no one else is here to see it.

FWOOSH.

Harry's head jerks up so quickly at the familiar sound that it spins for a little bit, and he blames that for how much warmer the space around his bed suddenly feels. Then he fumbles for his glasses and shoves them on, and his vision clears.

"Fawkes—it's you!"

Dumbledore's phoenix is resting to his right, with his long talons already tearing holes in the bedsheets. He responds to being identified with a friendly trill.

"Shhh!" Harry says hurriedly—but it's probably two in the morning, and even after he holds his breath and waits Madam Pomfrey doesn't come from anywhere to scold him or give her avian guest an exasperated look. She must be REALLY tired if she didn't hear any of that. Still, he waits another minute or two before he stops glancing around anxiously.

"I haven't seen you in ages," he muses, looking at the shiny scarlet top-feathers crowning Fawkes' head. When he reaches one hand out to pet them, the phoenix moves obligingly closer to allow it. "Did something happen? What're you doing here?"

Fawkes tilts his head and blinks his dark eyes. If he were a person, Harry would say he looked like he was wondering why Harry even had to ask—but he's not a person, and Harry is still a bit confused, on top of being cold and shaky and everything else.

Hmm. He chews on his own lip while he thinks it over, since his new companion isn't being very forthcoming. Something sparks in his mind and makes him snap his fingers, eyes brighter. "Wait a minute. This is going to sound mad—but—does Professor Dumbledore get a note or an alert or something every time I end up in the hospital wing?"

The phoenix ruffles his feathers and makes a sound like he's choking, suffering through another Burning Day even though he looks perfect. Wrong answer, then. Well, Harry might have Ravenclaw curiosity, but he never claimed to have the intellect to back it up.

"Right, not that then..."

Abruptly, he blushes: he's just remembered that Dumbledore was the one who brought him here in the first place, and that after saving him from the dementors on the pitch. Hermione and Ron had mentioned it, hadn't they?

"Oh."

Fawkes chirps proudly, like he can read Harry's thoughts.

He doesn't know how to feel about this. Of course he's relieved to be alive, but this isn't the first time or even the fourth time his life has been in danger this year. And for him to be constantly unable to do anything to defend himself, or at least not look ridiculous and helpless in front of the headmaster...

He was so angry, he remembers Hermione saying of Dumbledore. I've never seen him like that before. Ron blamed it on the dementors messing with Quidditch, but it was Harry they seemed to be drawn to—which meant it was Harry's fault they'd come to the pitch. Maybe Dumbledore was angry because Harry couldn't stay out of trouble even when he was trying to? Or maybe he was angry that Harry hadn't already figured out a way to handle the dementors, keep them away from the other innocent students?

The thought makes him shiver. And that makes Fawkes hop even closer, to nudge his right shoulder.

"I'm okay," he whispers. "And not feeling very sleepy right now either," he adds hurriedly, remembering Fawkes' first appearance last year.

But the phoenix doesn't seem interested in putting him to bed this time. He sings a few notes that sound oddly sad, and rubs his beak gently over Harry's arm. Harry feels like he's being petted somehow. He also notices for the first time how warm he is; when he looks at Fawkes, he can almost see an aura of heat coming from the bird, chasing away the chill that had previously consumed him.

"Thanks," he murmurs in another minute. His heartbeat's slowed back down and he's stopped shaking.

Fawkes sings a little more, close to Harry's ear. It makes him feel like he's being given a pep talk. No—it actually reminds him of the ends of his first and second year, when he was triumphant over Quirrell and Riddle and the basilisk. Dumbledore had sat in front of him both times to explain everything Harry missed, and had looked at him with something so much like pride...

Harry's smile slips.

"Is Dumbledore angry with me?" he asks, and tries not to sound as small as he feels at the idea. "Or disappointed? For not keeping away the dementors, a-and..."

The phoenix makes that same choking sound. He also stares at Harry until their eyes meet and hold like they did last year, and practically radiates worry, curiosity, compassion in a repeating streetlight pattern. The clear negative eases something that was drawing tight and tighter in Harry's chest; he brushes roughly at his cheeks and takes a few more deep breaths, until he can look at Fawkes again without him being blurry.

"Not angry then... just worried?"

Fawkes swishes his long golden tail across the sheets and makes no more uncomfortable-sounding noises. Guess that's a yes.

"I'm really okay," he assures the bird—and then pauses. "Well, er... okay enough."

That doesn't appear to be acceptable.

Harry tries to keep quiet, but something about the patient way Fawkes sits and stares and almost-cuddles him breaks down the barriers he usually has no trouble maintaining.

"It's just... not that I'm not used to being in danger, but this year—there's Divination telling me I'm going to die, and then Sirius Black is apparently after me but no one will tell me why, and then the bloody dementors keep floating around and making my head scream and—"

Fawkes warbles sadly. Harry gets mental images of students trawling through snow and a baby phoenix picking its way across the floor with care, and realizes he's being told to slow down. While obeying, he realizes he was talking so fast he nearly lost all his air and choked—which wouldn't have been good for keeping calm. He runs one hand over Fawkes' back as he starts over, and keeps his eyes on the opposite wall.

"I wouldn't care about Trelawney and Divination if it weren't for the Grim. I mean... I would care, but I wouldn't take the omens in every single period seriously. But today was the third time I've seen a black dog before nearly dying! First I was almost hit by the Knight Bus, then I got attacked by dementors and fell off my broom.... Hermione doesn't believe in the Grim at all, but Ron's stories about it don't sound mad at all. I don't know what to believe.

"And then there's Sirius Black. D'you know, I think he's the one who wants to kill me, but all the teachers would rather follow me around in the hallways and give me weird looks than tell me why he wants me dead? Either that or they want to lock me in a room somewhere where Black can't get to me. But Hogwarts is my home; I'm safe here already. I don't want to be pulled out of Quidditch and kept from my outdoor classes just because of Black, or even Voldemort! I don't want to live a—a half life, like he did."

The phoenix hums approvingly, nuzzling again at Harry's shoulder.

The gesture and the phoenix song give him enough courage to be honest, in the still darkness where none of his Gryffindor companions can judge. "Honestly... it's scarier not knowing what Black's on about. If they'd just tell me... I wouldn't feel so hopeless."

He hears a distant sound from the grounds, something that sounds like a growl, and he hugs his companion closer. Fawkes radiates even more warmth, so Harry feels like he's about to go through the Floo. Fortunately, although he still doesn't burn at all from the bird's heat, that heat is pretty effective at drying his face for him.

"You're so warm," he whispers. "I wish I could take you with me everywhere. Or at least everywhere the dementors try and get me. It's so cold around them."

Worse, the dementors have made the rest of Hogwarts colder too.

"I dunno why they affect me more than anyone else, but... I can't block out the screaming. And I think that might be why. There's a woman that screams in my head when they get too close. And she's not yelling for help, she's talking about me, asking Voldemort not to kill me—I, I think she might be my—"

The word won't come. Even in the dark, with one sympathetic firebird as his moral support, Harry can't force it out yet. It hurts too much to say.

"I want to fight them off, Fawkes. I want to do more than close my eyes and hope they'll go away. But I don't know how to fight dementors. Ron and Hermione said Professor Dumbledore made them leave the field... maybe he knows how?"

His eyes are closed, but the gentle nudge he gets from Fawkes seems like confirmation.

"Would he—no, never mind," he says, shaking his head hastily to clear the thought before it takes root. Dumbledore is much too busy to teach him how to repel dementors. He's got to find out how Black keeps getting into the castle, and increase protections on the Quidditch pitch since it's so far away, and do other headmaster stuff and Wizengamot things Harry has no idea about...

It was a nice thought for a second or two, though. Dumbledore teaching him some super-advanced hex or charm to keep his skin from freezing and his head from ringing.

Fawkes chirps encouragingly at him, but Harry shakes his head again to cast the idea away. Another idea replaces the first, as he remembers Lupin's expert defense against the dementors back in September on the Hogwarts Express. "I can ask Professor Lupin in class next week! Dementors are Dark creatures; surely he knows how to get rid of them."

Another trill bolsters Harry's mood. But when he pulls away and runs his hand over the phoenix's wings again, he sees a tiny splinter in one of his fingers that makes him frown all over again.

"...I almost forgot about my broom."

With all the other serious things that have happened to Harry since he blew up his Aunt Marge last summer, he'd almost forgotten about the loss of his Nimbus Two Thousand. Now, there's nothing and nobody around to help him forget.

"I shouldn't be that upset," he mumbles. "I'm lucky to be alive, it shouldn't matter whether I lost a Quidditch match and my broom in the process. But it does. It hurts as much as the dementor stuff does. I've had my Nimbus almost since I first got here, and I've never lost a match while I was on it. When I fly I feel free and safe and—and those things took that away from me before I knew what was happening."

Harry squeezes his eyes tighter. There's another round of hot prickling at the corners, and he hates himself for it.

"The Whomping Willow turned my Nimbus into broken wood chips. And I'd lost the match to Hufflepuff even before that."

He feels a slight wetness on his hands and opens his eyes quickly. To his astonishment, Fawkes has shed one pearly tear which landed on his finger. The splinter doesn't disappear, but the intent behind the gesture makes him feel like less of a prat for crying over a broomstick.

"...Thanks, Fawkes," he sniffs.

The phoenix croons patiently in reply. Damp-faced teenage boys are apparently no big deal for him to handle.

Regardless, Harry takes a few minutes to wipe his face again with his sleeve and take several deep breaths, oblivious to the distant sound of footsteps approaching. He doesn't want anyone to know he was upset come morning. It's different if Fawkes knows—it's not like he'll tell the Slytherins Harry was blubbering about his broom—but his friends will probably be back tomorrow, and they tend to worry too much when he's upset. The rest of his team might pop in again as well; and he can't afford to show Oliver Wood anything besides raw determination to win the Cup, even if he has to do it on a shoddy school broom.

Come to think of it, isn't Diggory stopping by too?

Harry winces. Angelina Johnson had mentioned that Cedric wanted to see him after the game, to make sure he was all right after his fall. Madam Hooch and Madam Pomfrey had headed him off in the immediate aftermath, but there was nothing to keep him from coming to visit Harry later today. Worse, he'd probably be disgustingly noble and impossible to be furious with at the same time. If he hadn't lost the Snitch to Cedric, he might be more willing to accept the visit in the spirit it was offered—as it is, he ponders the merits of pretending to be asleep tomorrow anytime he glimpses a yellow tie.

"I think I'll stay up all night," he tells his companion. It's an even better plan than only feigning sleep for one person. "How long are you willing to stick around? If you wanted I could tell you about Hedwig."

Fawkes fluffs his wings out like he's getting comfortable. He looks proud and regal and content with the world, and Harry envies him for it as he leans back into his pillows.

But all he says is: "You really are a good listener, you know?"

"Indeed he is," says a deep, amused voice to his right.

Harry almost falls out of bed. Albus Dumbledore is standing just in front of the open hospital wing doors in a magnificent emerald dressing-gown, holding a fancy mug of some steaming drink in his right hand. Moonlight from the windows gleams off his gold half-moon spectacles, and makes the tiny stars hidden on his gown twinkle like the ones in the sky outside.

"P-Professor Dumbledore!"

"Good evening, Harry," his headmaster replies pleasantly. "Or perhaps 'good morning' is more appropriate at this hour. I hope Fawkes isn't stealing too much of your bedcovers?"

"No sir," is how Harry wants to respond, but he's immediately distracted by Fawkes. The moment his master entered, the phoenix emitted a warm and playful song that could probably be heard all the way down the hall. He takes flight now in a rush of scarlet and gold, soaring over to take his place on Dumbledore's left shoulder (and leaving the air around Harry a bit colder for it). For his part, Dumbledore only chuckles and lets go of his mug to pet him. Harry's eyes threaten to pop out of his head when the mug floats patiently in midair instead of crashing to the floor.

He remembers himself in a flash and blushes his own shade of scarlet when he realizes that the old man might have been concerned about where his companion (his, not Harry's) had got off to. So he blurts, "I'm sorry, sir, I didn't mean for you to worry about Fawkes—not that I meant to call him here but—he's only been here for a little while—"

"Peace, Harry," Dumbledore reassures him, gently cutting him off. "Fawkes is quite capable of taking care of himself in my absence; I daresay it is me who slows him down. He also happens to be an excellent partner when one has insomnia, which is partly why I sought him out a few hours ago." He smiles, then, and the twinkling of his blue eyes calms Harry more than anything else he says. "In truth, I should have guessed he would be here."

"Er... right." He doesn't quite understand what Dumbledore means by that, but he can't help but grin when he notices Fawkes is grooming some of Dumbledore's long silver hair the same way he'd tried to with Harry's last year. He hops on the opening the man gave him to keep from laughing at the sight. "You have trouble sleeping too, sir?"

"Oh, certainly. While one of the merits of reaching old age is having many thoughts and memories to keep one company, those same things can be quite bothersome after nightfall. Imagine, if you will, settling down to sleep as your mind is fixated on a time when you Transfigured your professor's shoes into toffee bricks..."

That actually does make Harry laugh a little. The headmaster looks pleased with this as he approaches the bed. With a half-flick of his wand, a comfy floral chintz armchair appears on Harry's right side, and Dumbledore sits in it as casually as if it's sometime after two p.m. rather than a.m. While Fawkes resettles himself on the arm between them, his master turns toward his still-floating mug and crooks his finger; it hops over to him and settles on the bedside table without spilling a drop.

Through a haze of how did he do that, Harry vaguely registers that the mug is full of hot chocolate.

Dumbledore's soft voice regains his attention. "You haven't yet attained the privilege of old age, Harry, so I admit to being concerned that you cannot find sleep either. May I ask what's troubling you?"

"I—"

Harry shuts his mouth almost immediately, lowering his eyes. He knows he's not in any trouble and he knows in his bones that the headmaster is trustworthy, after the man's saved him three times in as many years. But—it's still so, so difficult to get past his first instinct, which is to keep his problems close and quiet when adults are around.

"Harry... if you are uncomfortable speaking with me, there is no shame in that."

Hastily he shakes his head. Dumbledore's nothing like the Dursleys! he scolds himself.

"It's not that at all, sir, you're very easy to talk to!" Even when I don't tell you about being a Parselmouth or hearing voices, and get more of my classmates Petrified because of it. "I just—ever since the match, since the dementors got near me, I've had bad dreams, and I don't... feel warm."

Fawkes makes a mournful noise and nudges Harry's hand with his beak. When he looks up, he sees that the twinkle in Dumbledore's eyes is long gone. In fact, the headmaster looks sadder than Harry has ever seen him look before.

"A lingering chill is one common side effect of being around dementors," he explains after a brief pause where they hold gazes. "And your sensitivity to them is nothing to be ashamed of either."

Harry blushes. It's nice to hear that the headmaster isn't disappointed in or ashamed of him, but it doesn't stop him from feeling embarrassed anyway. How in the world can I go to classes and play Quidditch if I crack up around those things?

Dumbledore sighs. "In fact, it is I who owes you an apology for yesterday's events."

Harry goggles. "But you didn't set the dementors on me."

"Indeed I did not. No, it was my responsibility to keep those creatures as far from you and the other students as possible, and I did not take the additional security measures I could have done." There's clear regret in the lines of his face. "Your safety is my priority, and I failed you. I am more sorry than words can express, Harry."

He bows his head; the move makes Harry squirm. Although he's grateful (and a little startled) to have someone apologize for not protecting him well enough, it feels unnatural coming from Dumbledore.

"I'm not angry with you, sir. You saved my life and I wasn't even conscious to thank you—"

"I felt you rather deserved a pass, under the circumstances," Dumbledore says wryly. He hasn't looked back up yet, but his mustache is twitching like he wants to chuckle again.

"Yeah, well—if it's anyone's fault for not driving off the dementors it's mine. I mean—I still have my wand in matches."

"You do, Harry, but it isn't your duty to protect yourself from threats on the level of Azkaban guards. I would rather you not take away from this the idea that you acted (or reacted) inadequately. There are proactive ways to drive away dementors that myself and the other professors are aware of; they will be in place the next time there is a Quidditch match."

Excitement bubbles in Harry's belly; he sits up so quickly that Fawkes flutters off the chair for a moment, hovering uncertainly between them. This is exactly what he'd wanted to ask Dumbledore earlier! "What kind of ways can you drive off—?"

"Albus Dumbledore!"

Harry is so startled he bites his tongue. When he glances at Dumbledore, the man's cheeks are actually flushed pink, and he looks like a child caught raiding the cookie jar.

"Oh dear," he says, oddly lightly. "I do believe I forgot to close the door."

The hospital wing door?

Before the young Seeker can ponder what on Earth that means, an invisible door at the end of the hospital wing bangs open and Madam Pomfrey emerges—hair in disarray under a net, brows furrowed, with an almost-visible thundercloud over her head.

"What are you doing sitting with one of my patients at half past two in the morning?"

"Now, Poppy. As headmaster I do try to ensure the welfare of my students, particularly when they've recently fallen fifty feet out of the sky."

"At half past two in the morning?" Madam Pomfrey hisses. She only moderates her tone when she glances over and notices that Harry is awake. "You set off my Intruder Charm and my Anti-Sneaking Charm, Headmaster, and for what?"

Dumbledore rests a casual hand on Fawkes' back. "Well, I misplaced my phoenix."

"A likely story!"

"It's true, Madam Pomfrey," Harry interjects, though his tongue doesn't thank him for it. "I was already awake when Fawkes came to visit me. And Professor Dumbledore was only coming to get him."

The mediwitch shoots Fawkes a scowl as she waves her wand at the door to reapply whatever charms or wards the headmaster broke through. "I should have expected a visit from you," she huffs, a sign that her temper hasn't abated at all. Fawkes just whistles like he's been paid a fine compliment.

Dumbledore smiles at Harry while still addressing his more agitated colleague. "Phoenixes are very sensitive to the negative emotions of people they find favor with. Fawkes has found a friend in young Harry; surely you wouldn't deprive him of the opportunity to bring some comfort?"

"The only comfort Mr. Potter needs is a good night's rest!"

"But I'm not sleepy, I'm cold!" Harry protests without thinking. He immediately feels awkward again, but Dumbledore snaps his fingers like Harry's words have reminded him of something important.

"Ah, Poppy—how many hours has it been since Harry has had chocolate?"

"Seven," the mediwitch recites automatically, before the answer sinks in and her face pales. "Oh dear, that would explain the difficulty with sleep and the chill—hold please, dear, I should have a Honeydukes bar somewhere around here..."

"No need to worry," Dumbledore soothes. "I have just the thing here already. I'll give Harry some before I leave." He waves his wand again in a complicated motion and says, "Geminio."

Harry watches with no small amount of wonder as the headmaster's single mug of hot chocolate becomes two. The second mug is full to the brim and has a dab of whipped cream on its crown to differentiate it from its twin.

"Straight from the kitchens, of course. That should help settle you some," the old man says brightly, with a hint of his signature twinkle coming back.

"Thank you, sir..." Harry manages, feeling like his own eyes might start sparkling as well if he isn't careful. To hide the odd stinging coming back to the corners, he ducks his head and sips carefully. Naturally, the hot chocolate's delicious and warms him inside and out.

I've got to learn how to do that.

Madam Pomfrey and Dumbledore seem to have come to some silent agreement while he was distracted by the drink, because when he dares pay attention to them again, the former is clucking and muttering something about "tell Minerva you were haunting the corridors and bothering her students, don't think I won't" and the latter is scratching Fawkes' neck and retrieving his mug to take a sip of his own. Harry spots several traces of brown liquid clinging to Dumbledore's beard once he lowers the mug and has to hold in another round of laughter.

"Mr. Potter, you will finish that drink and then it's straight to bed with you, understand?"

He agrees quickly, although his mind is preoccupied by watching the headmaster pack up with dismay. "You're really leaving, Professor?"

"Unfortunately I must, Harry. After yesterday's events I requested the Minister come to Hogwarts in person to discuss some necessary changes for our... guests. Interestingly enough, three in the morning was his only available timeslot. Fawkes' ability to disappear and reappear irrespective of wards and locked doors will keep me from being late."

"Right," Harry says, watching the firebird in question chirp proudly down at him, as if to say aren't I full of surprises?  He tries not to feel as disappointed as he does—he knows the headmaster is a busy man—but even the hot chocolate and a singing phoenix can only bolster Harry so much, now that he's had a taste of his undivided attention. He'd love to find a way to meet Dumbledore again on another late night once he's free of the hospital wing, but he has the feeling the man would smile at him for avoiding Filch and take points from Gryffindor at the same time for breaking curfew in the first place. It's one of the things he likes about the headmaster—he's nice, far nicer than Harry deserves, but he's fair too.

I hate that he's going, he admits to himself. And right when I was going to ask him about how to get rid of dementors...

"I do hope you rest well, Harry," Dumbledore says kindly, interrupting his racing thoughts. Madam Pomfrey has already disappeared back through the invisible door that likely leads to her quarters, so they are alone again in the quiet unique to the absurdly-early morning. "Take as much time this weekend as you need. The rest of Hogwarts will be here when you are ready."

"I'll do my best," he promises.

"Of that I have no doubt." Dumbledore reaches down and pats Harry's shoulder, and pauses to let Fawkes sing his own farewell before straightening up and sweeping out of the hospital wing. The door closes behind him with a tiny little click while Harry is still registering and defining the happy little bubble in his chest.

It takes him several more hours to fall asleep after all, but the chill and the shakes that plagued him earlier have departed for good. In the meantime, Harry lets himself enjoy his hot chocolate—and grins from ear to ear when the mug automatically refills after he finishes it the first time. The simple charm is proof enough that he's still being looked after.

The faint echo of phoenix song he hears throughout the room? Well, that's just an extra bonus.

Chapter Text

Christmas evening brings a festive chill to Hogwarts. Rapid flurries of snow lash at the wide windows in the hall and thick piles blanket the castle grounds as far as the eye can see. And even after spending a good part of the day outside, Harry thinks it wasn't near as cold as the air between Ron and Hermione was when the trio reunited in the Gryffindor common room to travel down to dinner together.

Though it is far from the first time his friends have fought this term, or even this week, he knows he will need to tread cautiously in conversations a bit longer so as not to alienate either party or spoil the holiday. Unlike their typical squabbles about homework or sneaking out after curfew, this year's clashes have concerned their pets: Ron has vigorously defended Scabbers the rat's right to quiet twilight years undisturbed by "mad fluffy beast", while Hermione sticks up for her cat Crookshanks' "innate predatory nature" of all things small and squeaky, old though they might be.

And the silences following their arguments, frostier than the ice curling into fascinating shapes on those wide windows, indicate a deeper discontent brewing between them. Even winning a three-way snowball fight against Peeves and the other remaining students outside hasn't yet thawed their anger. After spending three quarters of an hour soothing Scabbers and resettling him in a quiet corner higher up and harder for a devious half-Kneazle to reach, Harry is forced to concede that something will have to give eventually, or he won't have anyone to talk to at all.

Privately he's grateful Hagrid got him an owl who's been nothing but proud, graceful and entirely uninterested in eating other people's pets since she left Eeylops.

But even as Hermione half-crawls, half-marches huffily through the portrait hole and Ron trails behind with his ears blending into his hair, Harry can hardly muster a hundred percent of his focus toward being worried and exasperated in turns with his friends. His mind is floating, his thoughts giddy, and all centered on the shining, hardly-touched new broomstick nestled in his dorm room, ripe for a test-run after dinner.

A Firebolt. A Firebolt.

It's still vivid in his head, how the broom looked the instant it was unwrapped. The Firebolt was perfectly balanced, barely humming under his hands, a perfect replacement for his beloved Nimbus and a fitting upgrade for a three-time Seeker all in one. A growing part of Harry itches to skip dinner and race back to Gryffindor Tower, to throw open the windows and soar outside on his new gift, making laps over and over until his legs freeze to the wood. He can't wait for Oliver Wood to return from holiday—when he sees Harry's broom, he'll probably cry. And the Captain's tears of joy are far more satisfying than that pinched, grim expression he gets when something's gone wrong. Like when the games get cancelled because of some crisis or another at the school. Or when his star Seeker falls fifty feet and loses his last broom.

All that's in the past, he thinks excitedly. Now I can help the team again. The next game can't come soon enough.

"Harry. Harry. Earth to Harry!"

He startles. Someone's grabbed him, pulled him back a step. "What, what is it? What's wrong?"

Hermione tuts. "You nearly tumbled face-first down the stairs, that's what..."

"Oh." When he looks down, he notices that they have indeed nearly made it to one of the many moving staircases they'll need to navigate in order to make it to the Great Hall. The way he feels, though, he probably would have just floated over the stairs without touching them.

A Firebolt. He has a Firebolt.

"Oh? That's all you've got to say about nearly cracking your head open?"

Ron guffaws. His grin brings the freckles on his cheeks into focus. "Don't expect to get much sense out of Harry for the rest of the holiday, Hermione. He's going to be busy, y'know, drooling over that broom."

"I wasn't drooling," Harry protests, flushing behind the ears.

"You were both drooling," Hermione corrects. "Not that I think you should be, no matter how good the broom supposedly is. We still have no idea who it's even from."

Harry frowns, and his next words are a bit stiff. "What does it matter? It was clearly a present for me, why do we have to know who sent it?"

"I already shared my ideas on who sent it," Ron points out easily; the broom has distracted him from his stronger, more recent disagreement with Hermione for the time being. "Lupin might've done, but if it wasn't him, it was definitely Dumbledore! Who else has the means? Who else has already gotten Harry something valuable? We should just call it a day and let Harry ride it already."

"Of course it's fine to ride the broom if it was Professor Dumbledore who sent it, Ron, but why wouldn't he leave a note? Why not sign a message in some way if he did get it for Harry? Even if he couldn't risk signing his name, surely he'd have some way of communicating that it was from him. No, it has to be someone else—"

"It wasn't Dumbledore, for the last time," Harry bites out. "I told you what he said two years ago: the invisibility cloak was my dad's, he had to give it back to me sometime. It just happened to be at Christmas. It wasn't—it wasn't something personal." Though he's only mildly annoyed, his cheeks are now as red as his ears. "And I still say it wasn't Lupin either. But whoever it was, I'm not going to waste their gift just because they didn't take credit for sending it."

He doesn't pay his friends' worried glances any mind. Who cares who sent the broom to him? If Harry has to hazard a guess, he'll say Professor McGonagall probably closed her eyes and signed off on it, just like she'd once done for his Nimbus. She loves Quidditch almost more than she loves being fair, or doing that little pinched frown when students cross her.

Ron hums, and the drawn-out fashion of it draws his friends' attention. "Hang on... I hadn't even thought about that. If it's some nutter that wants Harry's attention, why wouldn't they sign it? Then Harry'd have to do whatever they asked, since they bought him the broom—"

"I don't do favors for people just because they buy me stuff I want!" Harry says, more than a little disturbed by the thought. He knows his friend is just throwing out ideas, and that most people don't have the time or the gold to buy a teenage boy an international racing broom, but does anyone out in the wider world really think he can be bought? "The only way anyone could make me do anything is—"

"—is if the broom is cursed, which is exactly what I've been saying," Hermione stresses. They at last find a staircase kind enough to let them board and deposit them on a lower floor; she tugs at Harry's sleeve the second they're all safe and en route to another. "You-Know-Who doesn't even have a body of his own and he's still managed to nearly kill you twice. If he could trick Ginny with a diary, what's to stop him from tricking you with a nice broom?"

"A nice broom?" Ron repeats incredulously, but she ignores him.

Harry shrugs, trying to make light of the even darker turn this conversation has taken. "Does Voldemort even know I love Quidditch?"

Ron and Hermione both wince at the name. The former says slowly, "Maybe not..."

Hermione's next words make the corridor colder. "Professor Quirrell did."

No one speaks as they hustle from the sixth floor to the fifth, and the fifth to the fourth. The confrontation with Quirrell happened so late in the last term of first year that they have never really sat down to talk about the implications of being so thoroughly tricked by Voldemort and his stammering crony, much less about living under the same roof as him for a whole year beforehand. But even if he didn't have the four-poster bed right next to Ron's or notice the second sideways glances Hermione gives their new Defense professor each September, Harry would be sure that Ron and Hermione remain just as disturbed by Quirrell's snake-in-the-grass routine as he is.

The odd form of commiseration makes him feel a rush of warm gratitude towards them. Even though his friends sometimes drive him mad with their bickering and hovering, he knows they only do it because they care. There's not many people that wouldn't run away screaming after hearing a tenth of the things Harry's gotten into since learning he was a wizard, but Hermione and Ron just grin and pull out books and wizard chess sets, tell him jokes and cross out dumb lines in his homework—and stick with him. They are everything he dreamt of in the cupboard, and more.

"Listen..." he begins, wanting suddenly to tell them what they mean to him, to chase thoughts of Voldemort away from Christmas. But he's interrupted by a very familiar sound.

FWOOSH.

Hermione and Ron both emit oddly similar-sounding squeaks—and despite being at odds earlier in the day, the latter is quick to dive in front of his friend to fend off what he surely thinks is a fireball launched from Sirius Black. "Harry, get away, quick!" he shouts.

But Harry is grinning from ear-to-ear, nearly as thrilled as he was when he unwrapped the Firebolt this morning.

"I'm not even in the hospital wing this time!" he teases, happily extending his arm outward. "So you must have just come to wish me a merry Christmas."

"What?"

His friends' shared exclamation barely registers; his ears are full of phoenix song. The air around them warms right up. With a trill of greeting, Fawkes swoops down in circles and wraps his claws carefully around Harry's forearm. His handsome scarlet-and-gold plumage gleams especially brightly today and his black eyes have their own sparkle.

"You're looking good—really, er, shiny. Did you get any presents?"

The phoenix trills again, but he can't tell if it's positive or negative. Not that Harry's sure what Fawkes would do with a present if he had got one.

A few feet away, Hermione finally recovers from her shock, gently extricates herself from Ron and stares at Harry and the firebird. "Wait a moment... isn't that the phoenix that visited us last year after Madam Pomfrey gave us all Mandrake Restorative Draught?!" Her eyes are round with excitement, shining as she makes connections.

"Er, yeah, it's Fawkes."

Ron jogs over to goggle. "The same Fawkes who carried us out of the Chamber?"

Fawkes turns his head and chirps at the fellow redhead as if to say The very same.

"How'd he know you'd be here?"

Harry shrugs, which he learns is very difficult to do with only one unencumbered arm and shoulder. "Dunno. But it's always good to see him, so I'm not complaining..."

"'Always'?" Ron blurts. "Does he show up like this all the time? How many times have you seen him?"

"...three or four?"

Ron keeps staring. Unconcerned, Harry scratches carefully under Fawkes' beak and down his neck, relishing the way the bird closes his eyes and warbles like he's Crookshanks purring from a comfortable lap. Just like the last two times they met, Fawkes' feathers are comfortably warm to the touch, and that warmth quickly spreads through his entire body. He feels a bit like purring himself.

"Ron, you look like you've just been handed a Firebolt!" Hermione suddenly says. "What on earth is the matter?"

Harry startles, looking between the two of them. Now that he's paying attention, Ron does look extremely surprised, but not at all in a bad way. There's a slight flush in his cheeks, and the hint of a grin on his face.

"Nothing's the matter," he says, past a laugh. "Except that for once I seem to know something you don't, Hermione! You're telling me you haven't read about domesticated phoenixes and how they bond?"

"I wasn't really in a position to, the first time I saw one!" she huffs. "But later on I read about how they're very loyal, and they can heal with their tears and carry several hundred times their weight, just like Professor Dumbledore told Harry..."

"But nothing about what they do once they pick someone to partner with?"

Hermione bites her lip. "Not in that text, no..." she says, with the air of one admitting that they've failed every single one of their subjects.

"Ron, what are you on about?" Harry interjects. He's stopped petting Fawkes to make sense of what's going on, and the phoenix is showing his displeasure by leaning in and (gently) nipping his ear with his golden beak. "Fawkes isn't my partner, he's Dumbledore's. He pops in on me every so often, but—ow, Fawkes—that doesn't mean anything—"

"Sure it does!" Ron replies, reaching out to pet Fawkes in Harry's stead. Interestingly enough, Fawkes allows him near (and is polite enough) but doesn't do his warble-purr or pick affectionately at his hair or fingers—and Ron doesn't seem surprised or disturbed by this at all. "Phoenixes are really rare, right? And they don't bond very often with people. Usually it's only people who are really good-hearted and powerful, like Dumbledore. I think he's the only wizard in three-quarters of a century who's had a phoenix for a pet, there was some big story on it ages ago when we were all little."

"Well, we wouldn't have been able to read it back then, would we?" Hermione points out, while Harry gives a bemused nod, trying to string together Ron's point. It's not like he's particularly good-hearted—his unkind thoughts about the Dursleys speak for themselves. And he's definitely more lucky than powerful, so...

"Why's Fawkes hanging around me, then? Can phoenixes have more than one partner?"

Their bookish friend immediately shakes her head in the negative. "When a phoenix's bonded human dies, the phoenix disappears too. No one ever sees them again. There's speculation that they shed their immortality to join the person they loved most in death."

Fawkes sings a brief harmonious note, agreement that echoes down the hall. As they start walking again, more slowly with their newest companion, Harry runs the word disappear through his head again and shivers at the idea. Someday, Fawkes' destiny will be to give up infinite rebirth to follow Professor Dumbledore to wherever his soul will go after his life is over... 

...and he seems just fine with that.

Then again, death isn't entirely frightening. His parents are dead, and they're still with him in a way.

Ron has apparently latched on to Harry's earlier question and held it tight, because once it's clear that Hermione doesn't know the answer, it bursts out of him. "It's because of you and Dumbledore! That's why Fawkes comes around, you see?"

"I know that loyalty to Dumbledore calls him." Harry frowns as Fawkes bends to nudge at his free hand, then chirps pleasantly when he finally gets what he wants. "And I guess maybe it's ongoing loyalty and not just a big moment with a giant snake, but I still don't know why Fawkes doesn't show up more often for any of the other students. It's not like you two like Dumbledore any less than me..."

"Mate, it's got nothing to do with your loyalty to him." The redhead puffs up as both his friends stare at him and sport twin frustrated scowls, briefly enjoying the thrill of knowing something they don't. But finally the urge to share peaks and he spills the beans. "Fawkes likes you so much because Dumbledore's loyal to you. I remember that from the story the Daily Prophet did: phoenixes are called to aid whoever's loyal to their master, but they only like people their master cares about in return."

Hermione's eyes light up with understanding and she beams at Harry. "Oh, Harry, that's wonderful!"

Harry is too busy gawking at Ron and Fawkes to share her excitement. He feels his ears grow hot once more under his friends' combined scrutiny, and wishes he could yank the Marauders' Map out and duck into a secret passage to hide.

What does that mean, loyal to me?  he wants to ask. He's just a kid—sure, he's faced Voldemort twice, but only with help from his friends, and yes, from Fawkes and Dumbledore himself. How can such a powerful, brilliant wizard be loyal to one of his students—and why would he be?

He meets Fawkes' warm, patient eyes and sinks into his own memories for several heartbeats. Harry recalls the way Dumbledore sat with him in the hospital wing, not once but twice, and both times after he'd nearly died. He thinks about how Dumbledore has offered himself as a confidant more than once, how he always seems to have the answers to whatever's bothering Harry most, and how Fawkes has made a habit so far of appearing whenever the headmaster is not around to talk to Harry himself.

The memories are as soothing as phoenix song, but they're worrying too. Harry doesn't know what to do with this information. The last thing he wants is to be singled out among his peers—they are quick to shun him at the slightest sign of trouble, whether it's him losing House points or accidentally revealing he has a Dark ability. Open favoritism from the headmaster or his famous pet will pretty much sink any chance Harry has of being treated normally, or judged on his own merits.

But on the other hand...

I don't want to tell Fawkes to leave me alone.

What's so wrong about being friends with a phoenix, anyway? Regardless of who Fawkes belongs to, it was him that chose to spend time with Harry, and Harry could honestly do much worse with magical creature-friends. As for the other students... well. Even if they all decide to sneer at him as they'd done last year, Ron and Hermione will stick by him.

So then, that's that. Fawkes can come around as often as he wants, and anyone who tries to make it a problem for Harry can get stuffed.

And what about Dumbledore?

Harry chews on his lip and his heart kicks double-time in his chest.

"Harry?" Hermione calls. Or maybe it's Ron—he's not paying much attention.

Instead, he strokes Fawkes's head and breathes out slowly. Come on, Potter, think. Dumbledore hasn't done anything wrong by being kind to him—it's his job to engender trust between himself and his students, so they'll come to him if anything important happens. And if Harry feels safe communicating with his headmaster, being around him, there's nothing wrong with that either. It's only natural, given how much faith Dumbledore showed him last year when the Chamber was open and nearly every other staff member was giving him wary stares. Besides, Dumbledore's never given him more House points than the sixty he earned his first year here and the two hundred he and Ron got for solving last year's Chamber of Secrets mystery, and wouldn't someone who was playing favorites do more than that?

Still, he can imagine what gits like Malfoy would say. Typical Perfect Potter, champion of Mudbloods, eager to show off and be rewarded for mediocrity. And of course Dumbledore's his most willing audience.

Fawkes croons like he knows what Harry's thinking, and the mental image of Malfoy fades. A rush of determination replaces it instead: he's not going to change the way he acts or the people he trusts just because of people who don't even know him. He's not going to stop trusting Dumbledore; he's not going to stop liking the man. He's a little mad, and he's far too good at talking in circles above Harry's head, but he's brilliant and his phoenix is amazing. If the most powerful wizard in the world doesn't mind Harry occasionally having chats with his bird, then who is Harry to complain?

"Harry?" someone says again, accompanied this time by a nudge. Definitely Hermione, he thinks, smiling for the first time in a while. And the shove is definitely Ron.

"Sorry," he mumbles, running his free hand through his hair. "I'm fine, just thinking."

"As long as you're okay." Hermione looks skeptical, but she's quickly distracted by Fawkes when he hops from Harry's left arm to his right shoulder, close enough for her to reach out and touch. Just like with Ron, Fawkes is content to be stroked, but he isn't overly affectionate with her like he is with Harry. That doesn't stop Hermione from oohing and aahing over him, examining his wings and marveling at the size of his beak and claws.

The three of them descend another two levels with their new tag-along, swapping outlandish theories about Harry's Christmas present and trying to get Fawkes to sing carols. (Watching Harry and Ron whistle horribly off-key to try and accomplish the latter makes Hermione tremble with laughter. The carols don't catch on.) Harry expects his shoulder to start aching with how long the phoenix has lingered, but neither it nor his arm carry anything but a lingering sensation of pressure. Perhaps Fawkes can lift heavy loads because he barely seems to weigh more than a draft of air himself. He also seems undaunted by sudden movement; when the staircase Harry and the others are on jerks randomly to the left before depositing them on the second floor, leaving the Gryffindors pale and ruffled, Fawkes doesn't even lose a feather.

"What do you think he does all day during the school year?" Ron wonders.

Harry can hardly imagine. It's not like they've ever heard stories of Fawkes flying through the halls or over the grounds from other students. "Dunno... but a lot of times when I've been in Dumbledore's office, he's sleeping. Maybe he leaves the castle a lot?"

"Without anyone seeing him?"

Hermione provides this answer eagerly. "Of course. Phoenixes don't Apparate like witches and wizards, they've got something better. That burst of fire Fawkes did when he showed up is how he gets around, and it's strong enough to bypass any wards."

This time when Ron whistles, there's no tune behind it. "Blimey."

Harry hums. Dumbledore had told him as much a few weeks ago in the hospital wing, so while it's still amazing, it's not necessarily surprising.

"Hey, Harry—" His best mate suddenly nudges him again. "Can he take us down to the Great Hall without us having to walk the rest of the way?"

"What? You mean, doing the fire teleportation thing?"

"Yeah! Ask him, go on—"

Hermione sniffs meaningfully, and so loudly that Fawkes jumps. "I hardly think it's appropriate to ask Professor Dumbledore's familiar to transport us up the hall and down a few flights of stairs when we could just walk like we've been doing!"

"Come off it, Hermione, he's mates with Harry now—he won't mind!"

"It's not about whether he minds! It's about treating him with respect. If Harry mistreats him, Fawkes might leave and never visit again!"

"I'm not going to mistreat Fawkes or ask him to pop us down for dinner," Harry protests, but he's too late—Ron and Hermione are already back to bickering. Somehow they manage to cycle through every point of conflict they've had in the last few days, while bringing him up more than once. His shoulders hunch up and he sighs, rubbing just to the left of his scar where a headache is threatening. Not again...

A chirp to his immediate right turns his attention back to Fawkes. The phoenix is regarding him seriously, like he's some puzzle to be cracked. With eye contact re-established, he gets flashes of the same concern he's come to recognize from previous experiences. Eventually Fawkes ducks his scarlet head and bumps it against Harry's hair, singing a single quiet note. Instantly Harry's temples stop throbbing and his shoulders relax.

"Thanks, Fawkes, that's much better," he says, smiling. "You didn't have to, though."

He's about to say more, but just then someone rounds the corner in a burst of black robes and a festive red tartan scarf.

"Potter, Weasley, Granger, here you are!"

Ron and Hermione's mouths close with audible snaps. Harry's smile slips straight off his face and he stiffens, and tries to stand as straight as he can as Professor McGonagall approaches. Christmas or not, he doesn't want to give her any reason to be cross with him.

If she isn't already.

"Y-You were looking for us, Professor?" Hermione ventures. Even though none of them are up to anything, she looks suddenly pale and nervous in the dim light coming through the wide windows.

"Yes, to ensure you were coming down to dinner!" McGonagall's eyebrow lifts as she takes in Fawkes still perching neatly on Harry's shoulder. "Though now I see why you may have been delayed."

Harry swallows any cheeky response under the weight of the deputy headmistress' stare. "Right, we... er... were just wishing Fawkes a good holiday. Got a bit distracted, is all. "

"He'll have one without too much trouble, I'm sure," she replies. There's a glint of humor in her eyes which dispels some of the tension of the moment on the students' part—at least they know now that they haven't put her in a poor mood. "Professor Dumbledore has already regaled the table with the tale of how Fawkes picked apart the jumper he was gifted this morning."

Ron can't hold back a snort at this.

"Off you go then, no more tarrying. You can hear more once you're there yourselves; I must go and collect the other students staying in the castle."

So saying, McGonagall turns and strides up the hall, nimbly catching the swinging staircase that had so rudely deposited the trio earlier going back up. Hermione watches her go with her lip half-hidden under her teeth; Ron keeps chortling, probably still imagining birds in jumpers. Harry opens his mouth to sigh in relief, but Fawkes interrupts his train of thought again by stretching his wings wide and chirping.

"What's with him?"

"Fawkes?" Harry asks, but the bird only nudges the side of his head again. When he chirps this time, it sounds like a farewell. An upbeat one, but a goodbye all the same.

"Are you leaving...?"

Before any of them can blink, Fawkes takes flight, soaring after the Head of Gryffindor. Harry half expects him to vanish in another flash of fire to close the distance, but he seems willing to exercise a little. He gives Professor McGonagall the courtesy of a warning trill before alighting on her shoulder; for her part, she gives him a tiny head-shake that doesn't hide how amused she still is. Professor and phoenix thus proceed off to wherever the other students dragging their feet to dinner might be.

The three of them stand there for a few minutes watching them go, drawing slightly closer together as the chill Fawkes kept away with his aura creeps back in.

"Well, there you have it," Harry says. "Fawkes was only passing through to make sure we wouldn't skip dinner." He hopes the tone of his voice is even and none of his disappointment comes through.

Then again, what did he expect—for Fawkes to stay on his shoulder throughout the meal without attracting even a bit of unwelcome attention?

Ron's snort is skeptical this time. "As if we would skip dinner!"

"As if you would," Hermione corrects him, but without rancor. The color's even come back into her face now that McGonagall's out of sight. Ron looks like he'd stick his tongue out at her if they were any younger.

To keep him from trying anyway, Harry hooks one arm under his and the other under Hermione's, dragging them down the last hall. "Come on, you lot; we all know McGonagall will beat us back now that Fawkes is with her."

"We could've already been eating if you'd let him pop us there," Ron complains.

"A little extra safe exercise won't kill us." Hermione sounds as self-righteous as she did earlier about Crookshanks. It's bait, and Harry can't help but take it.

"Nothing safer than an international standard broom—if there's any trouble next term, I can just outfly it, can't I?"

He ignores her scowl and keeps them moving toward the last set of stairs to the Great Hall. Fortunately, neither of them put up any more fight with him or each other.

This leaves Harry free, as they get to the last hallway before the wide wooden doors, to think back to Fawkes' effortless flight across the hall to join Professor McGonagall, and grin as he imagines mirroring it in a very short time. His heart does loop-de-loops in his chest. His finest-ever Christmas present is foremost in his mind once more, and he can hardly wait to get back to it.

A Firebolt, Potter. Just get through dinner, and you can go outside and practice on your brand new bloody Firebolt.

His mind jumps ahead to a jumble of imagined activities: himself catching practice Snitches in record time, giving Ron his promised go when the sun's low in the sky, and eventually winning Hermione and her paranoia over after a few laps around the pitch. His Quidditch teammates, cheering and clapping him on the back when they discover his new prize. All of them together, holding the Cup at the end of the season.

And who knows? Maybe by then, I'll be able to beat Fawkes in a race around the grounds.

Chapter Text

Dreamless Sleep is both a blessing and a curse: it makes a fine barrier against nightmares, and an awful impediment to anything more soothing.

Harry holds tight to this opinion a few minutes after waking up, finally free from the soporific claws hidden in the last bit of that very potion. The minimal light of pre-dawn peeks through the windows of the hospital wing, soothing in how subdued it is to his half-aware senses. Grateful as he is to be on the other side of a restful and undisturbed sleep, he still feels woozy and indistinct, like neither he nor his surroundings are quite real. Something important tugs at his consciousness as he blinks uselessly, searches half-blindly for his glasses, but he can't quite recall what it is. Not right at this moment.

As he sits up, his fingers brush smooth wood, a heavy bag that clinks, something that feels like a handkerchief, and then something soft—is that fur?

The answer comes to him in a flash:

Sirius!

He finds and snatches up his glasses with a gasp.

Disappointment smacks into him with the strength of a Bludger when he thrusts them on and realizes the fur is just loose bits on the table by his bed; it isn't attached to the dog he most wants to see again at this moment. The hairs are probably left over from before he went to sleep. As a convicted criminal, Sirius could hardly stay in the school with Harry while he recovered, and a dog's ongoing presence would eventually raise uncomfortable questions.

All that doesn't mean he doesn't miss his godfather terribly.

There's muted voices coming from the end of his bed, embroiled in some kind of argument, but he's distracted by memories coming back to him: the Third Task, the Portkey disguised as the Triwizard Cup, Cedric—oh god, Cedric, no—and Wormtail and Voldemort and the Death Eaters and his wand and the shades—

"—Now look what you've done, you've woken him up! Didn't I just say—"

"I have a right to come back and see how my godson is doing!"

"He's just fine with me here watching over him! It's not safe for you to be seen in the castle at all, which I'm sure is why Albus sent you off to collect—"

"Hang collecting people! There's plenty of time for that once Harry's out of hospital. Anyway, I got back in just fine, didn't I? I'm here now, so unless Dumbledore comes to haul me off himself—"

Harry groans and rubs at his forehead. Though Dreamless Sleep's soothing aftereffects still linger under his skin, the hissed argument is quickly robbing the room of its peace and quiet. Fortunately, the sight of his distress is sufficiently distracting to both perpetrators.

"Harry!"

"Harry, dear! Are you all right?"

When he finally focuses properly on the foot of the bed, his heart does a somersault in his chest. Excitement and disbelief start a war there too. "S-Sirius?"

His godfather smiles at him—a bit muted, compared to the smiles that make him look fresh-faced and eager for trouble, but gentle all the same. Sirius Black seems heedless of the danger of discovery as he hurries forward and sits to Harry's left on the bed. "Hey there, kiddo."

Harry turns to identify his second visitor since his eyes are still threatening to pop out of his head. He's only a little less surprised to see Molly Weasley, pink in the face from her recent discussion, busying her hands by smoothing down his covers. She's giving Sirius an odd look too, though that doesn't stop her from settling into a chair on Harry's other side and taking his closest hand in hers. His first instinct is to feel mortified; but a quick glance around shows him that Ron and Hermione are not present right now, and it really is just the three of them. No one besides Sirius is here to see her doing this.

"Mrs. Weasley—what time is it? How long have you been here...?"

"It's just gone five. And I stayed overnight, of course! You didn't think we were going to leave you in hospital on your own after what happened, did you?"

"Well..."

Harry falters. He's not in any physical danger now that he's back at Hogwarts. And hovering over his hospital bed, making sure he's feeling all right... if he expects that from anyone, it's only from his closest friends. Maybe some of the other Gryffindors as well. It certainly isn't something the Dursleys would ever dream of doing—but it's not a whit out of character for either of the adults sitting here.

It's a strange new normal... but a welcome one.

"You ought to go back to sleep," Mrs. Weasley suggests as the silence stretches. "We didn't mean to wake you so early."

"Did something else happen? Are the others—Ron and Hermione—Viktor and Fleur—"

"They're fine," she says immediately; he flushes shyly as she strokes over his hand a few times, like she's soothing a baby. "All fine."

"Wait, then—then what are you doing here?" That question is directed more to Sirius than it is to her, and from the half-triumphant look on her face, Mrs. Weasley knows it. But Harry is too busy twisting anxiously away from her to pay it much mind; his voice pitches upward as he meets Sirius' clear gray eyes. "I thought you were already gone. Not that I don't want you to stay but—is it safe? What if someone from the Ministry sees you?"

Sirius quickly shakes his head. "Dumbledore's shooing them off the grounds as we speak—says they've investigated more than enough for one day. I passed them on my way back into the castle, in fact."

He's so casual about a near-miss with the British magical government that Harry half wants to laugh; the other half wants to shake his godfather, stuff him under his Invisibility Cloak and push, push, push him until he's made it all the way back to whatever tropical location he'd flown here from, all those months ago. Judging from the barely audible hiss of breath from behind him, and the tail end of the conversation which woke him, he thinks Mrs. Weasley is having similar ideas.

And she only learned he was innocent a few hours ago.

"Don't look so worried, Harry."

"A dementor was just here in the castle, Sirius!"

"The dementors don't trouble me as much, these days. I'm pretty good at flying under the radar. And I've already made contact with some of the old crowd—those who weren't ready to hex me on sight in the middle of the night, anyway. But so much has happened... I had to come back and see for myself that you were all right."

The words are so concerned, so earnest, that Harry ducks his head while they sink in. He knows in his head that Sirius cares about him, and he saw for himself just yesterday how much: the man was willing to stand against Dumbledore in the name of protecting Harry from reliving his own memories. But sometimes his heart takes a while to pick apart the meaning of what his head already understands.

"Thanks..." he says at last, and leaves it at that. Hopefully Sirius can understand everything buried in that single word.

"Are you, Harry? Doing all right? Better, at least?"

"A little better." He is better off than he was last night, but many of the thoughts Dreamless Sleep had pushed down are now soaring back to the surface of his mind. There had been a guilty worm wriggling in his chest, chastising him for how quickly his thoughts moved to getting Sirius away from here, keeping him safe from any Aurors or dementors who might be roaming Hogwarts' grounds—although he'd known he was right to be concerned. That squirming has relented some, but it hasn't gone away by any means.

It would be so much easier if he could just focus on how happy he is that Sirius came back at all.

A hand appears under Harry's chin, cool and dry, and tilts his head up so he can lock eyes with his godfather again.

"Hey... it's okay if you need some more time to sort all this out. You don't have to say you're doing better if you aren't."

Gratitude wraps itself around Harry like a warm blanket. Sirius' gaze is steady and his hand grounds Harry's mind along with his body. When he glances over at Mrs. Weasley she is also nodding, and she hasn't let go of his left hand. All traces of discord between her and Sirius are gone. The two of them together, united in purpose like this, calms a part of him he didn't even know was agitated.

Harry lets the comfortable silence stretch as far as it can between the three of them before he answers the question which predated Sirius' reassuring words. "I really am doing a bit better. Not... not great, but better now that you're here."

The grin Sirius sports now is closer to the one that snatches his youth back from twelve years' imprisonment. Dropping his hand, he shoots Mrs. Weasley a smug look over Harry's head that says See, what did I say? and seems undaunted by the tiny huff she emits in return. The behavior reminds Harry so much of Hermione and Ron that he has to bite his lip to hold in a laugh.

"Has anything else happened?" he asks instead. "Anything with the Ministry, or Voldemort...?"

Mrs. Weasley visibly flinches at the name, and opens her mouth to speak—but Sirius beats her to it. "Voldemort's been quiet so far. The Ministry's still doing damage control for the Tournament right now... but not a word about the Crouches or old Snake-Face, of course. The Diggory boy's death—"

Now it's Harry who flinches.

"—well, they couldn't keep that quiet, and even if they could Amos wouldn't let them. So I reckon the Daily Prophet's already printing a nice flowery obituary for the poor kid, where the phrase tragic accident gets used at least three times."

"But... but what are the Ministry and the Prophet going to say about how he—how Cedric..." He swallows against the heavy lump that's made itself known in his throat. "Fudge didn't even believe that Voldemort—"

He stops. He can't say how Cedric died. He can't say believe that Voldemort killed him. Magic had prevented him from dreaming about anything that happened at the Third Task, but now the images play back over and over behind his glasses. Wormtail, holding Voldemort's wand. Voldemort, shriveled and repulsive, reducing a grown wizard, Harry's rival and fellow student, to a spare—like an unneeded sock when one already has a pair in hand.

What the hell is the Ministry going to make of all that, if they toe Fudge's line?

A horrible thought occurs to him. "They're not going to... make something up, are they?"

Sirius says darkly, "I wouldn't put it past them."

"That's quite enough."

Boy and man both jump at the steel in Mrs. Weasley's voice.

"Harry does not need a run-down of every bit of news about You-Know-Who or the Ministry or your mission right now," she declares. Her voice is only marginally more gentle when she addresses the boy in question. "Harry dear, there are some things you don't need to be concerned with. Leave the worrying to those of us who are of age to manage things, all right?"

"But—"

"Harry's the only reason we have half the information we do right now!" Sirius protests over his godson. "He watched Amos' son die. Why shouldn't he be kept informed in return?"

"Mrs. Weasley—"

"Watching that poor boy die is exactly why Harry shouldn't be thinking about anything besides going back to bed!" Mrs. Weasley snaps back. A faint flush of color is back in her cheeks now.

Harry winces, and keeps his shoulders from hunching toward his ears with effort. He didn't ask for news to be reminded of Cedric—in fact, that was the last thing he'd wanted. Now he's got his godfather and Ron's mum fighting again. And unlike Ron and Hermione, there's no guarantee they'll eventually make up and make things comfortable for everyone else again, since they don't know each other well at all. Just as quickly as it came, the warmth and comfort of having these two here for him cools.

"You can't protect Harry or your children from the whole world, Molly!"

Her eyes flash. "Watch me!"

Quit it!  Harry wants to shout at the pair. His irritation is starting to overcome his discomfort. Having Fudge and McGonagall screaming at each other yesterday was bad enough, d'you really think this is going to help me feel any better?

But he doesn't dare get cheeky with either of them—they're not the Dursleys, but they're neither of them in the best of moods either. There's no telling what they'll say or do.

Fortunately a knock at the hospital wing doors makes both Mrs. Weasley and Sirius stiffen and go quiet, so fast it would put a Silencio to shame. The doors are pushed half-open as a familiar voice pushes through. 

"Mum, is that you in there?"

The coolness in Harry's chest turns positively icy; he turns wildly towards the conspicuous convicted criminal in the room and hisses, "Sirius, hide!"

To his credit, Sirius asks no questions—between one blink and the next, Snuffles flops down innocently on the floor next to Harry's bed, nudging aside an oddly-ornate golden perch he hadn't noticed before (and that he swears wasn't present in the wing on any of his last visits). Harry leans back hastily into his pillows, the better to sell the idea that he'd just been talking and maybe got a bit too passionate with Mrs. Weasley all on his own.

Another curtain of red hair pokes through the gap, attached to tall, easygoing Bill Weasley.

"Oh, Bill..." His mother rests a hand over her heart, sighing. "You gave me quite a turn."

"Sorry about that. Thought I heard you down this way, is all... oh, hey Harry, good to see you awake."

"Hi, Bill—good to be awake."

Ron's oldest brother takes a second to look around the wing. No doubt he's confused about hearing shouting when, to his eyes, his mother's only company is Harry (whom she'd never yell at) and a dog. But whatever guesses Bill might be making don't show on his face; he just slaps on a grin and opens the doors a tad wider.

"Dad and Charlie are waiting for you up in the headmaster's office," he says. "Wouldn't start without you, of course."

"Oh! Yes!" Vague as they are, the words serve as some kind of call to action for Mrs. Weasley; she immediately gets to her feet, only reluctantly letting Harry's hand go, and makes a show of fussing with her hair and robes. "Harry—I've got to dash to a meeting. You'll be all right here on your own for a bit, won't you?"

Harry blinks, bemused. I guess Bill still doesn't know about Sirius?

At least that validated his earlier caution.

"Er, sure, Mrs. Weasley..."

"Wonderful! I'll be by to check on you again later, dear."

"I won't move a muscle 'till then."

She chuckles at that as she crosses the room, and promptly starts in on the state of Bill's hair and clothes once she's joined him at the door. Her firstborn gives Harry a look of long-suffering tolerance over her head as he escorts his mother out and closes the doors behind him. Their footsteps retreat swiftly from the wing. 

Harry pets Snuffles, counting silently to sixty. At fifty-six, Sirius stretches back up into his original form.

"That was close, wasn't it?"

Harry blows out a breath. "I thought we were done for."

That earns him the bark-like laugh. "Come on, give me a little more credit than that. I'm still pretty quick with a wand, I could've Stunned anyone who got through and saw me before they sounded the alarm."

"Well, sure—but I don't fancy your chances if it'd been Madam Pomfrey."

Sirius shivers. "Right, almost forgot... she's as fierce as ever. Might not be a good idea for me to stay longer without Molly or the kids around, even as Snuffles."

Harry expects to feel the same sharp stab of disappointment he'd felt the night before when Sirius had to leave... but the pain is only a dull ache this time. Perhaps because at least this meeting had had all the telltale signs of being brief. It wasn't like before, where the graveyard was fresh in his mind, and he felt almost desperate in his desire for an anchor, for someone close to him to play the parent. Now... well, things are better. Ron's parents are just a few floors away; Dumbledore is just as close, and probably monitoring things in here based on his frequent appearances. He can survive without Sirius close at hand—had, in fact, gotten quite good at doing so both before and after the man vaulted back into his life last year.

So all he says is, "You'll write? Once you're settled?"

"Sure I will. And you write if anything comes up, all right? If something happens while I'm sneaking past Filch in a few minutes—send Hedwig right then. I mean it."

"I will, Sirius."

"Good man."

Sirius pauses a moment before he transforms again. His easy grin turns gentle, almost wistful, and he reaches out to ruffle Harry's hair affectionately with his wand hand. The gesture makes the comfortable warmth he felt before Mrs. Weasley and Sirius' argument return tenfold—and the love Harry sees in his godfather's eyes makes the pain of their latest separation nearly worth it.

He wants to say something—though he's not quite sure what to say—but Sirius becomes Snuffles an instant after lifting his hand, and then he's gone, nudging the hospital wing doors open and trotting through them.

With not much else to do and no one left to interact with this early in the day, Harry leans back reluctantly into his fluffed-up pillows. A short kip might not be a bad idea, although he doesn't really want to go back to sleep right now. But his alternatives aren't great—the last thing he wants to do is get lost in his thoughts, now that he can remember them.

The Diggorys are due to visit him today.

The Diggorys are coming, and I have no idea what to say to them.

How can he tell vibrant, boisterous Amos Diggory, who'd been so proud and protective of his son in turns, that Cedric was cut down by someone who saw him as less than nothing? How can he look at Celandine Diggory and tell her that the only reason Cedric was in that graveyard in the first place was because he, Harry, had insisted on a Hogwarts tied victory?

He can't. Far beyond them rightfully despising him... the knowledge would crush them. He can't tell them.

But I have to.

Harry stares down at his hands, long healed of the cuts and scratches they'd obtained as he'd scrabbled around the graveyard trying to stay alive. He suddenly recalls his last extended stay in this wing last year, when he'd known that Cedric would be coming by to check on him and had pretended to be asleep so he wouldn't have to listen to Cedric talk about the disastrous Gryffindor-Hufflepuff Quidditch match—and a stab of self-disgust almost makes him double over.

Cedric was the best of all of us, and all I ever did was sit around being jealous of him. And now...

He squeezes his eyes shut.

Perhaps another round of sleep wouldn't be amiss, after all. And then one more after Cedric's parents are gone. Perhaps Harry can sleep his way through the end of term, until things look better...

 

 

When he wakes after his second nap, long after the Diggorys have come, been entirely too gracious, and gone, his entire body is abnormally warm, like fire is licking comfortably at all his limbs.

Harry half-groans as the world comes slowly back into focus. There's a light, warm weight in his lap from something or other. Although he fell asleep still sitting up, there's no lingering aches in any of his joints. He also must have forgotten to remove his glasses, because there's a slight pain from where they've dug a bit into his face while he was sleeping. On the other hand... it does save him time in recognizing the slender, feathery presence for what it is.

Fawkes.

Sure enough, the swan-sized firebird is curled up in Harry's lap, with his scarlet wings laying flat and his smooth head tucked into a spot just below Harry's left shoulder. His beady black eyes are shut tight, and if the low, melodious exhales are to be believed, he's fast asleep.

With no small amount of wonder, Harry reaches out and runs one unsteady hand down the phoenix's back. Fawkes doesn't stir or move. What on Earth made you come here?  he thinks, watching the scarlet-and-gold tail feathers gleam in the morning sun. He hadn't seen the phoenix since—well.

Yesterday.

He hadn't expected Fawkes to interact with him at all while he relayed his battle with Voldemort to Professor Dumbledore and Sirius, much less heal him—but he'd almost passed out from relief when the phoenix had cried on his leg and the dull agony from the acromantula bite had finally passed. If it had been appropriate to hug the bird then, Harry would have.

Maybe he read my mind. They are practically hugging now, after all.

"Can't believe you came here again to look after me," he whispers. "You're going to give Madam Pomfrey a headache, you know?"

The phoenix nuzzles closer. Something bright catches Harry's eye mid-grin, and he takes a closer look at the golden perch on the right side of his bed that Sirius had bumped earlier that morning. Then again... maybe she's not all that bothered by it anymore, if she gave him somewhere besides the bedsheets to rest when he visits.

Some of the gloom that's dogged his thoughts for the past day clears up when he imagines Dumbledore levitating a bird stand into the hospital wing over Pomfrey's indignant screeching and has to muffle a snort. And the fact that it's by his bed, too... bloody hell, even the professors know he practically has assigned space in this wing.

It's a miracle Snape hasn't taken the mickey.

Then again, that would require the man to have a sense of humor that didn't begin and end with "tormenting Gryffindors".

Harry shakes his head, shooing the thoughts away. Fawkes' presence is a hundred times more interesting than anything that slimy git might be up to right now.

Shifting a bit to get comfortable, he eyes the bedside table again, and doesn't completely relax until his eyes have landed on his wand. Although he'd hardly been separated from it for an hour or two in the graveyard, they had been without question the most terrifying hours of his life; now, he can't find a moment of peace until he's either seen or touched the instrument which saved him. Dumbledore said the phoenix feather in my wand came from Fawkes, he remembers, and his lips quirk up right as Fawkes himself chirps sleepily. It wouldn't be too far-fetched, then, to say that Fawkes saves Harry every time he waves his wand, whether it is in class, the tournament, or against three different incarnations of Voldemort.

"I heard you in the graveyard," he whispers to the bird, not caring whether or not he hears. He pets more confidently over Fawkes' feathers, letting that familiar warmth spread over his body through his hand. "When Voldemort's spell and mine connected, I heard phoenix song. I was relieved at first because it reminded me of you and Dumbledore... and now I know it was you. An echo of you was there."

Just like Cedric, and my mum and dad.

Harry stops his hand just when it starts to feel like he's stuck it in a fireplace with no Floo Powder. He's thanked Fawkes once before for saving his life, but stroking the bird's feathers seems like a poor form of gratitude on its own. Perhaps... yeah.

Hesitantly, he wraps his arms around Fawkes' body and pulls him closer, into something approximating an actual embrace. He rests his chin gently atop the crown of scarlet feathers on Fawkes' head, and murmurs the quietest but most sincere thanks he's ever given into them. Since he's expecting no response, he's caught completely off guard by the flurry of movement from his lap; Fawkes has apparently stirred at last.

When he looks down, mouth half-open to apologize, he meets the phoenix's dark eyes and is struck momentarily silent. Once again he gets that strange sense of feeling emotions that aren't his: this time, repeating waves of tenderness and compassion. Fawkes blinks slowly and patiently up at Harry, like he's trying to dive behind his eyes and find out what he may have missed; for his part, Harry doesn't know where to start explaining, or if he even needs to.

The decision is taken out of his hands before he can talk again. With a soft trill, Fawkes hops forward and noses affectionately back into Harry's chest, closing his eyes. In a very-astonishing few minutes, he appears to be sleeping as soundly as he was before Harry woke him.

...Well, brilliant, he thinks, more than a little flabbergasted. Hedwig's never done anything like this, and he treats her like a queen.

Then again...

Ron's words from last year resurface. "Mate, it's got nothing to do with your loyalty to him.... Fawkes likes you so much because Dumbledore's loyal to you."

His cheeks flush. 'Highly faithful pets', indeed.

Part of him wants to take the moment apart, piece by piece, until he understands every bit of what it means—but another part is too well-trained in not asking questions to let that dogged curiosity rule him. If Fawkes came to check on him and is content to stick around a while, who is Harry to question it?

He decides instead to put his arms back around Fawkes, cover them both up a bit, and let the phoenix's musical breathing lull him back to sleep. From what he recalls of his post-basilisk stay in the hospital wing, Fawkes' presence and singing are just as effective as any swallow of Dreamless Sleep potion—and with the Diggorys long gone and the wing blessedly empty, there is no time like the present to see if the present matches up with his memories.

After all, Fawkes is small but powerful, a symbol of bravery and healing and resurrection. And he won't let a single thing harm Harry, as long as Harry believes in him.

 

 

Harry's memory is borne out: he sleeps soundly without any distress, and also has a pleasant dream about soaring high above the highest clouds that the potion would never have granted him. Fawkes' warm body stays close to him in and out of his dreams. It lingers on the edge of his awareness, telling his subconscious that he's safe every time he asks. 

In the end, it isn't Fawkes that pulls Harry out of deep sleep—it is a faint, familiar pressure near the top of his head.

He stirs and frowns. What is that feeling? It's so... soft.

The feeling comes again. Harry's brain works furiously, and comes up with handBrilliant, he thinks again, this time more sarcastically. Really inspiredGoing to need a bit more than that, though.

Like before, full awareness comes back in stages. He remembers that Fawkes is with him, and deduces that he is still asleep based on the absence of trills or shuffling coming from under his chin. He recalls Voldemort and Wormtail and Barty Crouch Jr., and pushes them away in favor of Mrs. Weasley and Sirius and his friends. That keeps him calm enough to focus on the current mystery.

While his eyes remain closed, Harry finally realizes what's going on when he feels that same hand smooth his hair down flat, then stroke it off of his forehead. The motion is repeated once, twice, thrice, and his confusion rises at an even pace with his sense of contentment.

Who's doing that?

At last he gets a hand free of the bedcovers (and the phoenix) to rub the grit out of his eyes so he might open them—and the lack of impediment makes him realize that someone has removed his glasses only seconds before the hand that was tenderly rearranging his hair lifts, and places the essential little things back over his nose...

...and he gawks. Albus Dumbledore is straightening up and fixing him with a particularly-piercing gaze.

"...Sir?"

Almost immediately, some of the creases in the headmaster's face ease. "Good afternoon, Harry," he says softly. "Please forgive me for disturbing your rest."

Harry nods, bemused. That same overly curious part of his mind is still piecing together why his hair being ruffled woke him up, so the part fixed in the present only has enough power to say "S'okay, I didn't want to sleep too long"... even when that's not quite true.

There's an awkward pause for a moment between them—unusual, but understandable under the circumstances. Harry is very aware that the headmaster does not typically visit every student who finds themselves temporarily consigned to the hospital wing, and that he has somehow pushed past some invisible barrier in having it happen to him twice. Yet he, who usually takes pains to stay within as many lines as possible, to be as close to normal for a wizard as he can, is far too satisfied with having this one special thing to risk ending it by (rudely) asking the man he so admires what he is doing here.

Here in the quiet ward with Dumbledore at his side and Fawkes in his lap, so many of the invisible walls which dictate his words and feelings are so nebulous as to be practically invisible, and Harry takes to the absence of that pressure like a sickly child swallowing down hot soup. He feels braver, more willing to speak his mind—which of course means his mind chooses this exact time to go blank.

Fortunately Dumbledore takes pity on him; he only lets Harry flounder for a moment before he asks, "How are you feeling?"

"Fi—" Harry starts to say, then cuts himself off and looks away. His eyes alight on two bundled-up people to his left and he nearly startles out of bed: until this very moment, he'd had no idea that Ron and Hermione were sitting with him. But his confusion quickly becomes fondness tinged with amusement when he realizes that they are both sound asleep, wrapped up in matching blue fleece blankets with small planets dancing all over them. They must have come to check on him sometime this morning, only to drift off thanks to Fawkes' music.

And the blankets must be Dumbledore's doing.

Something makes Harry glance back to his right at the headmaster, who is waiting patiently for his response. He still wants to say that he's fine, and yet... he doesn't want to be dishonest. Doesn't want to try and pretend, like he (unsuccessfully) did with Sirius and Mrs. Weasley.

"I... feel better. Rested. Healed, I guess."

"That is good," Dumbledore says kindly, as he conjures his preferred floral chintz armchair to sit in. But his gaze doesn't waver in the slightest. "But I confess I was not solely asking about your physical well-being."

Oh. Right.

"I... I'm doing a little better, but I've started remembering what happened yesterday. I keep seeing the graveyard, and Wormtail cutting my arm, and Voldemort cursing me, and... and Cedric—"

Harry stops talking. His throat felt tighter after every name, to the point where he genuinely thinks he may have stopped being able to breathe if he hadn't cut himself off.

Dumbledore's eyes remain intense, though something behind them softens at Harry's admission. He speaks very quietly, but in a way that doesn't make Harry feel coddled or dismissed. "It may take some time for those memories to recede from the front of your mind, Harry. Right now your grief and terror make them easier to recall, but distance, time, and close interactions with your friends and loved ones should eventually dull the sting."

How long do I have to feel guilty about putting Cedric in that graveyard?  Harry wants to ask—but he doesn't quite dare. The headmaster still seems to know what he's thinking without him having to say anything.

"I speak from experience when I say that the feelings of guilt and remorse you are having, though undeserved, may never leave you entirely—and that is quite normal. But as long as you continue to live your life one day at a time, and remember that you are not at fault for any of this... things will improve for you."

Harry nods quickly, shutting his eyes. Though his throat has loosened up some, he feels a little warm and embarrassed, although none of Dumbledore's words were chiding or disappointed at all.

Dumbledore reaches out a hand and brushes it over Harry's head like he had when Harry was sleeping. The move surprises Harry so much that his eyes fly back open, in time to see the man hesitate briefly before holding his hand in place.

"Do not forget, Harry: at the age of fourteen, and in the course of a single day, you managed to fight your way through a maze of challenges, then keep yourself alive and mostly undamaged in a face-to-face conflict with one of the Darkest wizards that has ever lived, along with some of his most dangerous followers. You acted with unparalleled bravery, wit, and determination, and in the end your will to return home was stronger than Voldemort's will to end your life."

The heat spreads up Harry's neck and to his face, and stings the corners of his eyes for the first time since yesterday evening. "I don't feel very brave or strong-willed," he whispers.

"Please trust me when I say again that very few witches or wizards could have done what you did, much less lived to tell the tale. I am... tremendously proud of you, Harry."

It's the last bit more than anything else that breaks the dam, and causes a few tears to run down Harry's cheeks before he can reach up and rub them away. "...Thank you, sir," he manages to gasp, before he uses the rest of his energy to get himself back under control.

Dumbledore is polite enough to retract his hand and turn his face away while Harry composes himself, the same way he had back in Harry's first year. This means Harry has a little more time to examine the old man's face when he lowers his sleeve. Concern stabs at him as he notices that Dumbledore looks a little more pale and drawn than usual, like he hasn't gotten any sleep since before the Third Task.

"How are you feeling, sir?" he ventures, before he can stop himself. "You... you look tired."

The headmaster blinks, like he's startled to be asked after at all. Then he smiles for the first time since Harry has been awake. "I am well enough, Harry. It has been a busy last few days, indeed... enough to make me rather wistful for Miss Granger's old Time-Turner."

The reminder of Hermione's singular preoccupation from last year nearly succeeds in making Harry smile back, but his attention is still fixed on Dumbledore and his admission of weariness. Fawkes shifts suddenly in his lap, and he remembers the phoenix's presence and his proclivity for bringing on sleep and chasing away nightmares in a flash of insight.

Right, that's it! Professor Dumbledore came because he needed to get Fawkes. Guess I'd better give him over then...

He sits up a little straighter and gently cups his hands under Fawkes' body, offering the familiar to his human companion. Fawkes stirs a second time, blinks up at them both and chirps happily at the sight of his master. "Sorry, Professor, I woke up earlier and Fawkes was just here. But I don't need him here anymore, so he can go with you and help you rest—"

But Dumbledore surprises him.

Shaking his head and leaning forward in his chair, he throws Harry for a loop by putting his own cooler hands gently over Harry's, holding them still. Then he pushes Harry's hands gently backward—guiding Fawkes back so the young Gryffindor is hugging the bird to his chest again.

"Right now," he says gently, "I think I would prefer for him to stay with you."

His bright blue eyes shine as they hold gazes... and understanding hits Harry like a bolt of lightning.

For months now he has used the quieter moments in his life to suss out what Fawkes' visits mean to him—and, by extension, what Dumbledore's attention means as well. Ron had filled in a lot of holes for him last Christmas, but even that hadn't given Harry a name to put to... all this. Of course Dumbledore cares about him—Harry is one of his students, and everyone knows that Dumbledore loves Hogwarts' children like they are his own.

But anything else...

Until now, Harry had thought Dumbledore was politely indulging Fawkes' interest in him, borne of his passionate faith in Dumbledore's power and goodness in the Chamber. He had figured that eventually Fawkes would get bored with visiting him, or catch on to what a trouble-magnet he was, and go back to spending most of his time in the headmaster's office. He never imagined the firebird's visits might not be as random and unprompted as they appeared.

And with the man himself, things are still more complicated. Harry likes Dumbledore, he admires him—even (he can admit quietly to himself) yearns to make him proud in a way beyond the detached pleasure a teacher has for a top student. Yet until this afternoon, he had never once considered the idea of gaining anything... more. 

But the look in Dumbledore's eyes just now, the tenderness of his hand in Harry's hair and his gesture with Fawkes, sweeps away an entire cupboard's worth of doubt. His eyes hold the same warm look that Sirius' eyes had had just before the other man had transformed and darted away. It is so impressive and terrifying that Harry can only nod mutely in the face of it, and then murmur "Okay" as he keeps a gentle hold on the phoenix resettling between his hands.

The moment between them is broken when Fawkes opens his beak and sings a string of low notes, clearly part of some old tune; Harry sits up straighter as the energy of the song hits him, while Dumbledore's shoulders relax and he chuckles down at his travel-happy partner.

"Is that Dag Wirèn?" he asks happily, providing a brief explanation at Harry's puzzled look. "Ah, Fawkes. Only you would think to cheer someone up with some of a symphony performed forty-three years before they were born."

The indignant undertone to Fawkes' whistle and the way he turns away from the headmaster makes Harry laugh at last—briefly, but in a way he hasn't in days.

"You shouldn't make him angry, Professor," he quips; "the last time I saw him get mad he blinded a basilisk."

"So he did!" Dumbledore laughs more heartily than before, and a hint of his usual twinkle returns to his eyes for the first time. "I shall have to be careful, then, as I am already half-blind without these."

He taps his half-moon glasses. Harry feels the absurd urge to tap his own in commiseration, but refrains; the short, silly breach of formality between them might not hold up if he does.

Fawkes apparently cannot hold a grudge against Dumbledore for long; after another minute of sulking, he turns back around and hops across Harry's lap to be petted. Dumbledore murmurs something that sounds like "my finest friend" as he obliges, and the exchange gives Harry a sudden pang of longing for Hedwig's company. He hasn't seen her in ages. Perhaps once he's released, he can remedy that.

"Professor?"

Dumbledore's hand doesn't pause. "Yes, Harry?"

"Are you sure you don't want me to—I mean, want Fawkes to...?"

"I am quite sure." His voice softens again, and Fawkes sings another note which warms the room.

Well, that's that then.

"Ah, I did nearly forget my other purpose in coming..."

"Forget?"

Dumbledore shakes out the left sleeve of his robe like he's trying to dislodge something. What exactly that is becomes clear a second later, as a familiar bit of parchment slides into his free hand. Harry gawks—and then realizes too late that he's lost his chance to pretend ignorance at just what the headmaster is holding.

"I was taken aback by many of Barty Crouch Jr.'s revelations yesterday evening," he says lightly, "but few were more shocking than the knowledge that your father and his friends had kept one more secret from me—and that you were following in his footsteps." Long, thin fingers unfold the Marauder's Map, tracing casually over the four dots accurately portraying the hospital wing's current residents. "This is quite an extraordinary map, Harry—and quite an extraordinary bit of magic."

"How did you know—?" The impostor Moody had named Harry as the owner of the "map of Hogwarts", but hadn't known anything else to share under Veritaserum—he certainly hadn't known about its creators.

"Sirius and I had another brief chat, when I happened to spot him leaving the school for the second time in only a handful of hours."

Harry winces again. Busted.

"It also helps that I had Severus and Remus to confer with afterward." For the first time in several minutes, Dumbledore's jovial expression fades, and he fixes his pupil with a far more serious look. "Harry... while you hold no fault in any of Crouch Jr.'s crimes after he took this map from you, I must warn you to be extremely careful with whom you extend your trust. Even the tiniest extension can lead to disaster. There are too many people in our world who would happily take advantage of your open, forgiving nature."

Harry bows his head, willing that heat from before away from his face. "Yes, sir."

"That being said," and now the headmaster's voice is much brighter, "I see no reason to confiscate this, er, family heirloom from you myself, so long as you heed the advice I gave you when I passed down another gift from your father three years ago."

"Use it well," the boy whispers, as relief and hope entwine and swell in his chest. I'm getting the map back?

"Yes, indeed. You are older now, and I trust you understand better than you did before what I meant when I chose those words. And if you do not... I am sure there are others who would happily explain the nuances of language for you."

The words are so odd that Harry looks up—just in time to catch Dumbledore winking at someone else over his head. A faint squeak follows shortly after. When he glances to his left again, he immediately spots Hermione's half-sleepy, half-embarrassed expression as she pulls her blanket up higher around her face.

How long has she been awake?  he thinks wildly—then, registering the other sounds in the room for the first time, he looks over to her left and sighs. And come to think of it, Ron doesn't snore that loudly.

They're both awake.

He puts it out of his mind for a moment when Dumbledore hands him back the Marauder's Map, still nearly overloaded with moving dots as life at Hogwarts carries on.

"Thank you, sir."

"It is no trouble, Harry."

Fawkes nudges Harry's free hand as he's tucking the map away, so he busies himself with petting the phoenix while he fishes for some other topic to breach. That warm shine in Dumbledore's eyes is still uppermost in his thoughts, but knowing Ron and Hermione are awake and will hear anything he says chokes off any related conversation. Four years together notwithstanding, there are some things he'd rather they not know.

On the other hand...

It isn't often that he has Dumbledore's undivided attention on topics that aren't Voldemort. Maybe if Harry closes his eyes and pretends it's only the two of them in the room, he can just open his mouth, like so, and ask...

"Albus, here you are!"

...absolutely nothing at all.

Professor McGonagall has pushed open the hospital wing doors and now strides purposefully toward Harry and the trio around his bed. Unlike her superior, it looks like she caught a few hours of sleep last night, and reigned in her temper in the process; her hair is back in its tight bun, and her footsteps and overall demeanor are quiet but alert. She spares only a minute to look over her trio of Gryffindors and nod briskly at each.

Dumbledore rises easily from his chair and mirrors her mood; in less than three seconds, he has figuratively donned his 'Headmaster' hat. "Minerva, you have need of me?"

"For our students from Durmstrang, yes," she affirms. "Since Headmaster Karkaroff's... departure... they have been very unsettled. I thought it might be best if..."

"Say no more; I quite agree. I will speak to them now." The headmaster smooths out his robes, and Vanishes his chair with a little wand-flick.

Harry's good cheer deflates as quickly as the chair disappears into nonbeing. Fawkes trills soothingly at him but he doesn't hear a single note. Why is it that he and Dumbledore are never allowed to finish a conversation in their own time?

Perhaps his disappointed sigh was too obvious, because Dumbledore pauses before he steps away from the bed. His eyes travel quickly over Harry's face before his silver mustache quirks upward with a wistful smile.

"Can I trust that you'll look after Fawkes in my absence?" he inquires gently.

The show of trust is unnecessary, but it still bolsters Harry's flagging spirits. "Of course, sir," he promises. With a little effort, he manages to smile back. "I'll spoil him if I need to."

"You may find yourself regretting those words once you find yourself at Honeydukes one blisteringly cold night, covered in pecks and emptying your pockets for one more box of Cauldron Cakes."

Harry can't help but snort—both at the mental image this inspires and at the way Fawkes perks up at the mention of sweets.

Dumbledore spends one more minute nodding kindly at the (oddly-quiet) Hermione and Ron and giving Fawkes a farewell pat. Then he gives Harry another of those warm, multilayered looks.

"One day at a time, Harry," he repeats. "Rest well; I shall see you again soon."

And with that he turns on his heel and follows McGonagall out of the wing, quickly catching her up so they're striding in tandem by the time they reach the doors. The heavy thud of them closing behind the two seems to loudly announce an end to something Harry didn't know had begun.

He waits a few seconds for either of his friends to say something, but when neither is forthcoming, he swallows another sigh and cuts through the tension himself. "You lot can quit pretending you're asleep now."

Hermione whispers immediately, "...Sorry, Harry." Her cheeks are very slightly flushed. "I didn't mean to... we didn't mean..."

Harry just shrugs.

Ron clears his throat awkwardly, grabbing both his friends' attention at once. "...I know we missed some stuff, but how in the world did Dumbledore get a hold of the map when you gave it to Mood—er, to Crouch's son?"

"He told Dumbledore about it under Snape's Veritaserum. And afterward," he reminds them darkly, "he wasn't exactly in a position to protest it getting nicked off of him."

They all digest this particular uncomfortable truth in silence. It is jarring to realize that even a man as cruel and duplicitous as Barty Crouch Jr. had been is now composed of less than any other living being on Earth, yet is forever denied the mercy of death. For Harry, hearing about what the Dementor's Kiss could do was one thing; having it happen a mere handful of floors away from him was something else entirely, something far more disturbing.

After two years in a row of close contact with the vile things, he'll be pleased if he never sees or hears about another dementor ever again.

"At least Professor Dumbledore let you have the map back," Hermione says, smiling as Fawkes sings a few more notes in a clear attempt to lift their spirits.

"Yeah, mate, you're lucky he likes you so much. Imagine what he would've done with it if you were anyone else!"

"Yeah..." Harry agrees faintly, glancing quickly at and away from the doors Dumbledore had swept through. "I guess I am pretty lucky."

He feels a little better after Fawkes tucks his scarlet head back into his chest and radiates pure pulses of comfortable heat. Although he can't deny being disappointed by Dumbledore's absence, at least Fawkes is standing in for the headmaster when he can't stick around. And if the last few terms are anything to go by, something will bring the two of them back together. For now it's just a waiting game.

"So..."

Hermione and Harry both look questioningly at Ron, who gestures to Fawkes.

"...d'you think he'll teleport us down to the Great Hall whenever we want now that he's got to stick with Harry a while?"

The hiss that comes out of Hermione's mouth would scare Crookshanks if he were anywhere around. Harry is too startled at first to make any noise of his own, or do anything but stare at Ron with mouth agape.

"Ronald Weasley—"

"What? Too soon?"

"—you are so insensitive—"

"It's a valid question! What else is he going to do, sleep on Harry's shoulder all day?"

As their bushy-haired friend lays into Ron and he fights valiantly back, Fawkes makes a dissatisfied sound and tucks his head under one wing as if to say, That's quite enough of that.

Harry ducks his head and shakes it to hide his grin. Some things never change. But while their rows might get irritating or demoralizing on a normal day, there is something soothing about them having one barely a day after getting him back from the darkest wizard of modern times. It means things really might be all right for him, someday soon.

I'll take things one day at a time, he thinks, with one necessary addendum: with Ron and Hermione, the Weasleys and Sirius, Dumbledore and Fawkes, Hedwig, and all the others who care about me. I think that's something I can manage.