That afternoon, Aberforth had finished mucking out the goat shed and, with considerable irritation, washed the unattended breakfast dishes again. His brother and Grindelwald were outside, playing soldiers or whatever they did with their time. The house was quiet.
A bit too quiet?
"Ariana," called Aberforth. "Where are you?"
He strode into the sitting room, and there was Ariana, sitting by the window with the phoenix chick in her hands. She'd opened the cage door and taken the bird out.
"Ariana!" exclaimed Aberforth, but not too loudly. He didn't want to startle either his sister or the bird.
She looked up at him. Her face was lit with sunbeams. Aberforth was a little worried about what Albus and Gellert might do if they caught Ariana taking their pet phoenix out of its cage, but he couldn't be angry at her, not when she looked as happy as that.
"Be careful with him," said Aberforth, sitting down beside her. "Your brother'll be upset if you let him escape."
The front door slammed, and Gellert and Albus came charging into the sitting room. Both were out of breath and laughing. "Hey, Abe," began Albus, but he stopped in midsentence when he saw Ariana sitting there, holding the baby phoenix.
Albus looked puzzled but pleased. Gellert, on the other hand, was not pleased at all. "Put the bird back in its cage," he said. "Right now! You should not have taken it out. It is not yours."
"I wasn't aware it was yours, either," said Aberforth, calmly. "It's a wild thing, isn't it? You caught it to amuse yourselves with, but you ought to be taking it back to its nest soon. You've had it half a day and you already wandered off to play with something else."
"That bird is not a plaything!" said Gellert, angrily. "And we will keep it as long as we like!"
"Easy, Gellert," said Albus, reaching out to touch his friend's arm. "Ari probably just wanted to hold it. I think it likes her."
"She is unpredictable. You should not have let her near the cage!" said Gellert, glaring at Ariana.
Aberforth stepped in front of his sister, protectively. "Leave her alone," he said. "She didn't mean any harm. She doesn't get much joy in her life; let her hold the phoenix awhile if that's what she wants. As a matter of fact," he added, "I was the one who took it out of the cage -- so if you've a problem, take it up with me. All right?"
Albus frowned. He knew his brother well enough to judge that Aberforth was lying. Ariana had probably opened the cage herself. But he saw no reason to redirect Gellert's anger at his sister. Gellert and Aberforth just didn't get along, but looking after Ariana was the important thing.
"We should probably take the phoenix back to its nest, Gellert," said Albus, after dinner.
"Why?" said Gellert. He nudged his bishop and pointed to a square on the chessboard, and the bishop obediently moved to the space indicated. "Check."
Albus studied the wizard chessboard. "Hmm." He'd expected his friend to make that move, but it was all part of the plan. "Advance two," he said, tapping a pawn. The pawn shuffled its feet, looking doubtful.
"Go on, do it," he said. "Trust me." The pawn shrugged and stepped forward, blocking the check.
"Because we've had it for a day and its parents are probably worried," he explained. "Besides, we haven't figured out what it eats. It might be starving."
"Capture the pawn," Gellert told his bishop. It eagerly attacked Albus's pawn with its miter, and the pawn stomped to the side of the board, defeated. "Check. I'm sure the bird will eat what is offered, when it gets hungry enough. And bird parents do not miss their offspring. They aren't that intelligent."
"Maybe you're right." Albus leaned over the board, studying it from every angle. He moved another pawn, but it was no threat.
"In any case," Gellert continued, directing his rook to a new position, "we can take better care of a phoenix than its family could. After all, when it is in our house, it is shielded from predators and bad weather. Were the parents clever enough to appreciate that, they would undoubtedly be glad we relieved them of responsibility for their chick."
Albus leaned over the chessboard and grinned. He stretched out a finger, about to touch his knight, and Gellert saw the trap. The blond wizard swore furiously, but it was too late. His bishop was captured by Albus's knight, and his strategy was spoiled.
"Sorry, Gellert. It's not over yet, you've still got lots of pieces left."
Gellert leaned back in his chair; it looked like he didn't want to play any more.
"Anyway," said Albus, "about the phoenix ... I know it's been fun having it around, but really, we should take it home. They're not easy to tame, you know; I read a couple of books about them. Fernward says if a captive phoenix doesn't like where it is, it just burns up in a pile of ash and doesn't reconstitute. It doesn't renew itself again," he clarified, remembering Gellert had difficulty with long words in English sometimes.
"Phoenixes are noble birds, they choose their own masters. The only way to keep one around long-term is to sort of persuade it to be your friend, and that's only if you're worthy. At least, that's what the book said."
Gellert sighed. "I'm going to bed. We can talk about it more tomorrow."
"But don't you want to finish the game?"
"It's over," said Gellert, rising from his seat. "You've won. This time." He walked away.
The chess pieces looked disappointed. "At ease. The game's over," Albus told them. They broke ranks and climbed into their padded places in the chess box, grumbling a little. "Maybe there'll be another battle tomorrow." They brightened up slightly as Albus gently set the lid on the box.
He stood up, stretched, and pointed his wand at the fire, causing it to bank itself. He walked into the sitting room to check on the phoenix again ... and couldn't see it in there.
He hurried closer, squinted through the bars. The cage door was open, and so was the nearby window. No doubt about it, the bird had escaped. Or more probably, someone had set it free.
"Hey, Gellert! Aberforth! The phoenix is gone!"
Gellert ran into the sitting room. It only took him an instant to glance from the open cage to the window, and realize what had happened. "Oh, no! Who could have done this? How dare they!" He was furious.
Aberforth entered, in a dressing gown and slippers. "Shhh, lower your voices, will you? Ariana's sleeping. And so was I, till a minute ago."
Gellert whirled on him. "You! You let the bird escape, didn't you."
"No, I –" Aberforth began, then stopped at the look in the other's eyes. "Well, what of it?" he said, defensively. "It was time for it to be let go, anyway."
"It was not your decision to make!" Grindelwald shouted. "Do you know how long it took us to capture that bird? You owe us compensation!"
"Compensation?" snapped Aberforth. "That's a good one!" He was just as angry as Gellert -- Albus could tell it was only consideration for their sister that was keeping him from bellowing. "You eat our food, you sleep under our roof, and you never give a word of thanks. It's you who ought to be thanking me for cleaning up your messes."
Grindelwald pulled out his wand, but before he could raise it, Albus intervened.
"Enough," he said, stepping between them. "The phoenix is gone. And good riddance to the poor thing. It's better this way. Nothing fine lasts forever, does it? Let's just forget about it and go to sleep."
"At least we know where the nest is," said Grindelwald. "We can find it again."
"We're not going back out there tonight," said Albus. "And I'm not going to look for it tomorrow, either. What's done is done."
Grindelwald looked from Albus to Aberforth, and saw he wasn't going to win this argument. He stormed from the room, muttering something unpleasant under his breath.
The brothers looked at one another. Neither said anything for a few moments.
Finally Albus said: "I'm getting some hot chocolate. Would you like to make some for you? I'll clean up after myself this time, I promise. Sorry I didn't do it before."
"Doesn't matter," grumbled Aberforth. "I'm going to go see to our sister. The noise has probably upset her. Actually, why don't you make some hot chocolate for her, too?"
Abe lied again, thought Albus, as he spooned chocolate powder into a saucepan. He didn't really open the cage. It was Ariana.
But Grindelwald didn't know or care. It was probably just as well. Albus had no intention of stating the truth, although he wished his friend wasn't so upset. He hated to see Gellert unhappy. He himself was a little sorry that their prize was now gone ...
... but as he stood stirring the milk on the stove, he thought he could hear a faint bird song in the distance.