A piercing cry split the night, echoing from the rooftops of Hogwarts.
The approaching creature trailed fire as it flew, shedding golden flames like sparks from its feathers as the mighty wings beat and beat again. Even as it swooped up in a great curve to hover a few paces away from Harry, even as the flames surrounding its passage diminished, the creature seemed no dimmer, no less bright; as though some unseen Sun shone upon it and illuminated it.
Great shining wings red like a sunset, and eyes like incandescent pearls, blazing with golden fire and determination.
The phoenix's beak opened, and let out a great caw that Harry understood as though it had been a spoken word:
Not even realising, the boy stumbled back from the edge of the rooftop, eyes still locked on the phoenix, his whole body trembling and tensed, his fists clutching and releasing at his side; stepping back, stepping away.
The phoenix cawed again, a desperate, pleading sound. It didn't come through in words, this time, but it came through in feelings, an echo of everything that Harry had ever felt about Azkaban and every temptation to action, to just do something about it, the desperate need to do something now and not delay any longer, all spoken in the cry of a bird.
Let's go. It's time. The voice that spoke came from inside Harry, not from the phoenix; from so deep inside it couldn't be given a separate name like 'Gryffindor'.
All he had to do was step forward and touch the phoenix's talons, and it would take him where he needed to be, where he kept thinking he ought to be, down into the central pit of Azkaban. Harry could see the image in his mind, shining with unbearable clarity, the image of himself suddenly smiling with joyous release as he threw all his fears away and chose —
"But I —" Harry whispered, not even aware of what he was saying. Harry lifted his shaking hands to wipe at his eyes from which tears had sprung, as the phoenix hovered before him with great wing-sweeps. "But I — there's other people I also have to save, other things I have to do —"
The fire-bird let out a piercing scream, and the boy flinched back as though from a blow. It wasn't a command, it wasn't an objection, it was the knowledge —
The corridors lit by dim orange light.
It felt like a tightening compulsion in Harry's chest, the desire to just do it and get it over with. He might die, but if he didn't die he could feel clean again. Have principles that were more than excuses for inaction. It was his life. His to spend, if he chose.
I could do it any time I wanted… …if I wasn't a good —
Harry Potter yelped aloud as he turned from the phoenix, his phoenix, to see the interloper. Albus Dumbledore stood behind him, tears glistening on his cheeks as he met the boy's eyes. Fawkes, on Albus's shoulder, had broken his gaze at the other bird to narrow his eyes at his master when he spoke.
"What?" Harry said.
Albus hesitated before speaking again, taking care not to glance at Fawkes. Already he was aghast at his own rashness. This choice above all choices should have been Harry's own. The phoenix was certainly here to take Harry to Azkaban, and there would indeed be chaos if Harry accomplished his goal there. And that was to say nothing of the terrible risk it would be for Harry Potter to accept his phoenix's charge; Harry's mission might or might not be as dangerous as was typical — would the annihilation of a hundred and five Dementors have a three-quarters chance of killing him, when destroying his first had come so effortlessly? — but it was a danger, or else the phoenix would not have come. And the safety of the Boy-Who-Lived was paramount.
But there was more than one kind of safety.
From the beginning, Harry's first year had gone nothing like Dumbledore had expected. When the Sorting Hat had cried "SLYTHERIN!" from atop Harry's head, Dumbledore had very nearly broken his perfect record of smiling for the Sorting of every First-Year student during his tenure. And although that had turned out all right in the end, the false Sorting was a portent for the year since then, for the Boy-Who-Lived himself.
While Dumbledore had anticipated Harry Potter's being a horcrux ever since that momentous night, the last Halloween in Britain to be known foremost as Halloween, he'd had no idea what effect it would have on the boy's psyche and personality. But Arabella had consistently reported that he was a normal child, if a bit fuller of Muggle nonsense than she expected, and so Dumbledore had planned for this year — the standard Wizardborn acceptance letter, Minerva's introducing him and his family to magic, his even quirkier than usual Sorting speech — expecting to gain Harry's confidence, take him under his wing, and then eventually, over the course of his Hogwarts career, ready him for his destined and foreseen quest.
But his planning had been for naught, for Voldemort had returned already, and Harry was not a normal child. The fragment of Voldemort's soul within Harry did not merely connect him to the Dark Lord's mind as Dumbledore had hoped, but manifested in Harry's own thoughts and actions. It had not been an eleven-year-old boy who had blackmailed Albus into curtailing Snape's act. In January, when the world had almost lost its only hope to a Dementor, Harry had briefly become Voldemort. And just that day in the Wizengamot, Harry had all too easily assumed his Dark persona and faced down Lucius Malfoy, trying to convince him that he was the Dark Lord.
The Dark Lord blackmailed the Headmaster; the Boy-Who-Lived protected his classmates.
The Dark Lord was brought forth by a Dementor; the Boy-Who-Lived destroyed it.
The Dark Lord confronted his former lieutenant; the Boy-Who-Lived saved his best friend's life.
When Harry Potter faced the real, resurrected Voldemort, who would Voldemort find before him? Would Harry be able to coöpt his Dark side to do good, as he had done before? What voice, either within him or outside him, would he listen to in that crucial moment?
It wouldn't be Albus's, that was abundantly clear; there was no trust there, thanks to the combined influences of the Defence Professor and the horcrux within Harry. And in any case, they didn't speak quite the same language. Harry did love and trust Minerva, but he didn't respect her as he did his mentor, the Defence Professor. There was one language, however, that Albus knew Harry could understand keenly, one voice that he knew Harry listened to. Indeed, Harry listened to it too well. But that voice might someday be all there was to pull Harry from Darkness, and Albus would not always be there to provide it for him.
There was more than one kind of safety, and there was no point in keeping Harry Potter's body safe if he did not first keep safe the soul of the Boy-Who-Lived.
"It is your own choice, Harry," he said hoarsely. "But for my part… …I say go. Go, and return."
Harry stared at Dumbledore for a moment longer, then turned away to face the phoenix. He needed to think, to process all this in his constituent parts, but that deep, insistent inner voice was the only part of him that was responsive; the rest, if he strained to discern them, were just using Harry's eyes to stare slack-jawed at the new phoenix.
Some help here? Harry thought.
Gryffindor snapped out of his reverie first, and immediately launched into a tirade. GO what are you waiting for you don't have all night WELL YOU DON'T KNOW THAT YOU DO EITHER JUST GO ALREADY YOU KNOW THE ANSWER —
Guys, I really need some opinions of a different colour right now, Harry thought at the others as Gryffindor continued.
Slytherin took a moment to collect himself, then observed: Dumbledore's telling you to do something would not have been a point in that thing's favour before now.
It wouldn't necessarily have been against it, either, said Hufflepuff.
We do seem to have trouble with Dumbledore, Ravenclaw said absentmindedly. Didn't you get sidetracked from that topic this afternoon?
Well there's no time for that right now, thought Harry, there's a pressing matter and we need a decision that's actually based on brains.
Everyone here is biased towards our going, said Slytherin. Dumbledore, Gryffindor, Fawkes. Weren't you already thinking that we should stay when Dumbledore interrupted you?
Dumbledore let you let the Malfoy family bankrupt you today, specifically to keep you from this quest, said Ravenclaw. And now he's biased towards our going? He must have a really good reason to do a 180° like this.
Yeah, there's a phoenix now! said Slytherin.
Hasn't Dumbledore's advice to us been about how you shouldn't always act upon the voice of the phoenix? said Hufflepuff. And he's still saying we should go.
Dumbledore also might want us to go so we can die trying.
Then why didn't he let us go earlier? Hufflepuff objected.
Because now the loss of Azkaban won't look like his own fault for not stopping us.
This is getting us nowhere, said Ravenclaw. Should we just ignore Dumbledore altogether and go back to our original train of thought?
A fine idea, said Slytherin, so we st —
Gryffindor suddenly stopped his background badgering and declaimed, This might be your last opportunity.
What? thought Harry.
The situation at Hogwarts is getting serious, said Gryffindor solemnly. You lost Draco this weekend, and almost Hermione as well. You don't know who you may lose next. If somehow you lose Dumbledore, you lose Fawkes. If you lose Fawkes, you lose access to Azkaban and your ability to complete this quest in the foreseeable future. And that's if you survive long enough to try.
Harry's breathing quickened. Before Dumbledore spoke up, he thought, I was about to ask the phoenix to come back in a few months.
Would it have listened? Gryffindor said simply.
Just then, the new phoenix cawed once more. A feeling of urgency, of warning, of time running out — and not about the prisoners in Azkaban, but about the beings on this roof, this very situation. He needed to make a decision now.
At that moment, with three manifestations of Gryffindor influencing him, all Harry's goals were reduced to binary digits in his mind's eye. He had three quests of the utmost importance: the first and most important, the elimination of Death; the second, the fight against the malevolent forces inside Hogwarts; the third, the destruction of Azkaban's Dementors. The first was the longest-term, the least certain of success, and probably the least dangerous. For the other two, the possibilities were that he could complete neither of them, one of them, or both of them. He might die in the attempt of either and succeed. He might die in the attempt of the winning his war and fail. But he was almost certain that he wouldn't die in the attempt of harrowing Azkaban and yet fail; if he attempted it, success was almost guaranteed, even if he did die. So the only way to guarantee the success of either was to attempt Azkaban before it was too late.
And what about Hermione and all my other friends? Harry asked himself.
So far, it seems as though they're only in danger because they're your friends, said Ravenclaw. Our dying in Azkaban is probably as efficient a way as any to get the targets off their backs.
Harry took a deep breath, then set his jaw. He knew that he was letting Gryffindor get the last word, that he was letting his heart get ahead of his brain. But an earlier thought about a similar situation came back to him:
Human beings can't live like that.
Harry took one more breath, then reached out, grasped the phoenix's talon, and disappeared in a flash of flame.
"And so it was done," whispered Dumbledore. "So it was done." He wiped his face, steadied himself, then he, too, flashed and disappeared.