Golden Apples and Frankincense
Chapter Three: Fledging
Harry grew exponentially in the next couple of weeks, to the point where he was the size of Hedwig and therefore getting much too big for the nest. He was getting fatter too, but that's what a sedentary life of berry munching did for a bird.
The wizard-turned-avian was starting to get annoyed with not knowing what kind of bird he was but, lacking a mirror there was little he could do about it. Maybe he could find a pond with a decent reflection? First though, he had to get out the nest before he was too big to squeeze out of the hollow. The alternative was just embarrassing to think about.
Hedwig would be happy for him to fledge, Harry's rapid growth required a lot of nourishment and without the ability to fetch it for himself, Hedwig was his resident courier service. Another week of his bottomless stomach, and Harry reckoned she'd be ready to shove him out the nest herself, especially since she could no longer squeeze into the hollow alongside him and was therefore left outside in the elements. Harry was determined his friend wouldn't have to put up with that any longer.
He picked a time when Hedwig was gone so there wouldn't be any distractions and wriggled out the tree-nest. Immediately, his new grown feathers puffed up where they'd scraped against the wood and Harry shuddered. This must be what cats feel like if you stroke them the wrong way. More trial and error followed as he used his slightly curved beak to preen the feathers back into place. It's a lot harder than Hedwig makes it look. Harry scowled (as much as a bird can) as he flattened his newest red plumage against the grey fluff that had grown in first.
The first few flaps felt wonderful, he hadn't realised how stir crazy he was until he was able to move and although it was tiring after being still for so long, Harry was convinced he'd be able to flap hard enough to keep himself airborne.
The ground didn't look that far down, he'd been up higher on his broom and birds were designed to fly. Most of the big wing feathers had grown in (Harry gave them a quick once-over preen to make sure) and he was sure that there wouldn't be any problems with the grey patches amidst the red and yellow- Harry paused, tilting his wings so the light caught them, huh, not yellow, gold then. They were kind of pretty. In a very masculine Gryffindorish way, of course.
Urg, focus, Potter. Flying. Focus on flying. It was a good day for it, clear skies and a warm wind. There were even enough leaves from last autumn to cushion his fall as mulch if his landing wasn't that great. Now or never. Harry flapped his wings, managing to lift himself until his scaly feet were almost off the branch and then launched himself from the perch.
He flew, he soared- for all of about three seconds.
Harry's flapping wasn't fast enough or strong enough to gain altitude but even as the ground approached at a break-neck pace, Hogwart's youngest seeker in a century didn't close his eyes. Not when his new wings cramped and his shoulders burned, instead he stretched, tucking in his feet as his wings opened to full capacity. For the last few feet, Harry glided to the ground. If not for his curled legs and bent head, Harry might have even made a smooth landing. A barrel roll that ended in a sprawl of feathers was a small price to pay for his first non-human flight and Harry couldn't contain his chirruping giggles. Blood brilliant- I've got to try that again!
Hedwig's presence was announced with a pointed hoot.
Harry swallowed, burying his crested head into the damp leaf mould. Bugger.
To say that Hedwig was not impressed was an understatement and after digging him out the leaf pile the first thing she did was swat him around the head with her wing. Then he was made to hold still as she put him through a thorough tidying, jerking out the broken feathers with more force than strictly necessary. Harry gracefully endured until Hedwig's plucking gave way to something that didn't make him feel like a Christmas turkey. Harry cooed, quickly becoming a bundle of feathery goo, melting into Hedwig's side as she smoothed those ruffles just right...
Smack! The owl batted a heavy wing at her ward's head again and her eyes took a steely caste, communicating more than human words could: 'if I ever catch you doing something that stupid again there will be hell to pay!'
Harry made good of the Sorting Hat's prediction two years ago as he made sad cooing noises and snuggled up to his owl again, head bowed contritely, instead of acting as gleeful as he felt. After a considering moment, Hedwig continued checking him over for damage and generally babying him. Meanwhile, Harry looked up at the higher branches, considering.
When I try gliding I'm definitely going to need a bigger drop...
Harry spent the next two nights on the forest floor, learning how to hiss threateningly at weird animals that got too close, until Hedwig deemed him ready to fly straight up from the ground. His wings still ached from the improvised boot camp but he was able to make the ascent with only one lower branch rest-stop.
Naturally, the first thing he did after he got to the top of the nest tree was to leap off it again, his chirruping laughter almost drowning out Hedwig's indignant squawk. A flawless landing was Harry's reward for his borderline suicidal tendencies the second time around.
It wasn't the same as quidditch, the first time he'd ridden a broom had been instantaneous, instinctive perfection; even if it took him a while to memorize specific manoeuvres, the art of actually flyinghad come naturally. It was the same now, only he'd needed his body to catch up with those instincts, when it had, he glided and weaved through the tree trunks like they were keeper hoops.
The only misfortune was that the speed of his Nimbus had been traded for the natural ability of flight. Walking was also an issue, as now his legs were only good for stumbling hops, his claws for gripping and scratching but little else. They wouldn't be able to hold a quill, or move a chess piece, or turn the pages of a book with any dexterity.
If he ever got back to Hogwarts- no, when he grew in all his feathers and Hedwig showed him the way back to Hogwarts (it was a matter of logistics, not impossibility) it would be a mess trying to explain all of this to Professor McGonagall so she could change him back. Though when she did, Harry hoped he'd get extra credit for an underage animagus transformation, or at least a waiver for not doing any of his transfiguration homework over the summer.
Harry buried his head under his wing and tried not to think of home.
At some point, the weird and wonderful animal hybrids became commonplace. There were so many combinations of completely unrelated species that there was simply no way a wizard hadn't had a hand in breeding them and thus they became a reminder of home. Harry made a point to ask Hagrid about wizarding animal sanctuaries when he got back to Hogwarts, the grounds-keeper was sure to know. Even if the animals weren't quite as vicious and deadly as the man preferred his pets to be.
Hedwig hissed at the animal clinging to the tree opposite them, knowing from previous encounters that despite its sleepy appearance the hybrid was fully capable of making the jump. Its fur was varying shades of grey dappled with darker spots, stubby forepaws clung to the trunk as longer back legs curled tense underneath it, its sinuous fluffy fail the only thing in constant motion.
As far as Harry could figure, it was some kind of koala-leopard but it could be another one of the big spotted cats for all he knew. The size of it was worrying; somewhere between the animals that contributed to its genetic make-up for although it was smaller than a big cat, it was far heavier built than a koala would be.
The koala-leopard hissed back at them. Hedwig puffed up her feathers to make herself look larger than she really was and Harry copied to a much lesser effect.
Tail lashing frantically, the hybrid tensed in preparation to leap, impressively sharp teeth marring its otherwise cute koala face. Okay, maybe Harry hadn't quite acclimatised to the freaky fauna just yet.
Hedwig obviously didn't want to leave the roost and to be honest, neither did Harry. It was a good hollow and it was already getting dark now, Hedwig would need to hunt and she wouldn't want to leave Harry sleeping alone in a strange place. Whether the creature wanted their home or to eat one of them was negligible- if they abandoned this site then the koala-leopard might not leave even if its goal had been a meal.
It lunged and Hedwig took to the sky for better manoeuvrability and the chance to use her talons. Harry faltered, finding it harder to take off without a drop and now that route was blocked by the koala-leopard. Seeking what refuge could be gained from the too-small hollow, Harry realised his mistake immediately as he backed into the corner. If Harry made a break for it now, those jaws would clamp down on him before he had a chance to open his wings, an impossibility now without moving back closer to the threat.
Seeing the situation from above, Hedwig screeched furiously and for the life of him, Harry couldn't figure out if she was angry at the animal for threatening him or for Harry himself being so stupid as to get into this mess.
Expelliarmus, expelliarmus- Harry thought, trying to pour all his dread and will to live into his mental chant. His thoughts went blank as Hedwig missed her prey and the koala-leopard lunged for him.
It was difficult to describe the sound and even though Harry made it he had to replay it over in his head to get the gist of it. Something like a shout, only bird-like, and boy did it make a noise.
In comparison to that, the forest was deathly silent. He probably blew his ears out or something, the hollow certainly made the cry resound a good way.
When Harry opened his eyes again, the koala-leopard was gone.
Did I do wandless magic? Enough power behind a disarming spell could certainly knock someone off their feet, so maybe.
Hedwig fluttered about him, checking for injuries and thoroughly scolding him with a series of chiding hoots. It was then Harry noticed his owl had blood on her talons and deflated a little. Well, mystery solved. I didn't actually cast magic at all. Hedwig is just ten times scarier than anything that goes bump in the night.
Far below them, a terrified koala-leopard leaped the remaining length of the tree and took off running for a nice bolt-hole a good distance away. There it would lick its superficial wounds clean and imprint upon itself the importance of staying away from strange birds.
If Harry and Hedwig's corner of the forest was oddly quiet that night then that was completely coincidental.
The clearing was as he remembered it, with a few notable exceptions.
Greenery had sprouted since his last visit, a spectacular array of verdant shoots reaching up to the dim shafts of light above. It was probably the climate which made them grow so fast, the air was a touch humid.
Harry's cast-off pyjamas were now more grey than blue, a damp heap from soaking up rainfall coupled with the ash sticking to every stitch. The fabric was heavy and stank of stagnation but Harry reclaimed both top and bottoms from the foliage and hopped off to a near-by pond to soak them, dunking the pieces several times and beating them with his wings until powder blue shone through and the scent wasn't quite so stale. They were slung over a low-hanging branch to drip and ho boy, it had been awkward getting them up there. They weren't heavy but several times Harry thought he was going to get tangled in the bloody things and drown in the pond below. It would have been an embarrassing way to die.
Oh- Harry suddenly remembered, I wonder if the pond's clear enough to get a decent reflection off of it. He finished draping the shirt haphazardly, bunching it up in a way that would have Aunt Petunia twitching and glided down to the pond shore, splashing his feet in his haste. He waited for the ripples to fade, jittery with excitement. He would finally see what he was! If it was a species of parrot (like the bright plumage might suggest) then he could teach himself to talk like a person again. It would make convincing the teachers much easier. Or maybe he had distinct markings, like Professor McGonagall's cat form with her rectangular glasses that darkened the fur around her eyes.
Even if his mark was the curse scar, he could hardly complain because it was so distinctive and linked to his identity. Putting up with a bunch of gawkers would be a small price to pay for having help changing back into a human being again.
His scaly feet shifted nervously as the last of the ripples evened out and Harry leaned forward to catch a glimpse of himself.
The lightning bolt scar was still there, a slash of white beneath a crown of red and gold, long feathers which arched backwards and fell partway down his longish neck. His wings were more golden on the inside but his chest was primordially a brilliant red with a few amber flecks, marred only by smatterings of grey where his adult plumage hadn't grown in yet. Trailing along the ground as he walked, his tail feathers were particularly immature, with only a few long crimson spears poking out of a fluffy behind and none of the large eye feathers which he knew would one day grow in. There was no mistake.
I'm a bloody phoenix! Harry flopped down before he fell down, a wave of dizziness rushing over him. He looked like Fawkes but that was impossible. There's no such thing as magical animagi! The boy-turned-bird remembered Professor McGonagall's lecture on the subject (who wouldn't when she was a cat one minute and a person the next?) when she had explained to the excited muggle-borns and one ignorant half-blood among them what animagi were and 'no, Mr Thomas, you cannot turn into a dragon. Popular wizarding myth aside, it is quite impossible.'
Starting to hyperventilate, Harry hid his face under one of his wings, deciding not to concentrate on the angle he was turning his head in order to do so, his new neck being a lot longer and more flexible than his old one.
A phoenix. A bloody phoenix. It spiralled about his head until the mantra became a death-knell. As if he wasn't a big enough freak already, with the heir of Slytherin stigma still hanging over his head at the end of last year and no one quite believing what had really taken place down in the Chamber, add that to the mess with the Stone...
Professor Dumbledore said everyone knew what happened but no matter how many times Ron told them they'd look at me and wonder if that was all there was to it. It had been a blow that a lot of the get well cards and sweets in the hospital wing had been from people who wanted to know if he really killed Professor Quirrell. As for second year, well, no one believed he was Slytherin's heir after Hermione got petrified but more than a few thought it was very convenient that Harry had been the one to discover the Chamber at the last moment. On both occasions, Voldemort was never identified as the perpetrator of these incidents. They were just random, unrelated events, the only common denominator being Harry, who was either a glory hound or the unluckiest wizard who ever lived.
Returning to Hogwarts like this... he would never have a moment's peace again. Even if the students weren't in attendance, someone would let it slip eventually; Hagrid for all his heart was a terrible blabbermouth.
I want to be just Harry. Normal, not a freak. Hide, have to hide, like the cupboard, dark and quiet and squash the magic down because if you turn another teacher's hair blue you'll forget what sunlight looks like. Just Harry, just Harry...
It didn't hurt as much as last time but somehow it managed to feel more unnatural.
Feathers shed, bones lengthened and gained density, his beak became a mouth opened in a breathless gasp of pain and his talons retracted into blunt human nails, clawing at the soil. It only took a moment-long eternity and Harry James Potter was human again.
He had all his fingers and toes, no extra limbs, feathery patches or wings (the only thing the young Seeker was disappointed about losing).
Naturally, given Harry's perchance for disaster, on top of the feeling he had that he had somehow turned the planet on its axis, something had gone terribly wrong.
His hands were soft, his skin as pale as it had ever been at the end of a summer of imprisonment but uncalloused and tiny. Little details, like moles, had disappeared along with the scars on his arms and preliminary checks showed the others had vanished too. Grease splash burns, marks from cutting himself when he was younger and tried to dice vegetables too quickly, even the basilisk fang mark, were all gone. Harry stood, wobbling to his feet to check himself more thoroughly and found to his dismay that those hard won muscles from quidditch were all but gone, his legs like a week-old colt's. Worst of all, was the change between Harry's legs.
"MERLIN'S BALLS!" Harry screamed, not in any state to appreciate the irony of his cry, his voice coming out more high-pitched than he remembered. The wizard squeaked his mortification, covering his mouth and looking around for anyone who might have heard his humiliation. As always, the forest was deserted of human beings and for once, the now younger wizard was glad for that fact. Sinking to the ground with his arms wrapped around his knees, Harry moaned. "This cannot be happening... I wanted to be me again, not a little kid."
The Slytherins would have a field-day with this, if he was even able to go back to Hogwarts in this state. There was Voldemort to consider too; all it would take was one more weak-minded sap like Quirrell to give Voldemort a body and Harry would be toast. It would be worse than back in first year and Harry had been pretty tiny then too. Sure, he might have the time to grow up again but given his track record, Harry would stumble into another plot at Hogwarts. Maybe there would be another dark object possessing children or a teacher trying to kill him, bludgers gone mad- oh, he probably could play quidditch now anyway and his friends would graduate years ahead of him, maybe he would have to be re-sorted and this time he would end up in Slytherin with mini-Malfoys-
Harry breathed into his knees, trying to keep the panic from bubbling up. The plan hadn't changed much, not really, he tried to reassure himself. He would get back to Hogwarts, somehow, and then the teachers could sort this whole mess out. If he played his cards right he would never have to tell them about this whole phoenix thing. De-aging was far more normal than becoming a magical animagus without any sort of training and besides, he was more recognisable as a little kid than he was as a bird. With any luck, Harry could get back to school and cured before term started.
Maybe he could stay at the castle, emptier than it was even in the dead of night on holidays, and he could find more of the castle's secrets to show Ron come September first. Harry loved Hogwarts best when it was quiet, when the castle seemed to whisper to him under his dad's cloak, with all the time in the world to think and explore to his heart's content. Somehow, Harry always managed to find the most hidden passageways and out-of-the-way nooks on those trips and it was a good way to make use of his sleepless nights.
The shift of focus worked and his breath starting to even out, despite the hammering of his heart in his chest. Finally, Harry crept to the water's edge and stared at himself through a gap in the weeds.
Bright green eyes stared back at him from a pale face topped with a fly-away mop of black hair, from which his only remaining scar peeked out from under the fringe. Thank Merlin. He was still himself, he hadn't changed that much, he was even glad to see Voldemort's mark- it would take some explaining if it just disappeared. How old was he? It was hard to tell. Definitely younger than ten but older than seven. Eight or nine then. Bugger.
The only consolation was his eyes hadn't deteriorated back to their previous state. Even when he was little, Harry had been near-blind without his glasses.
Harry took a deep breath, slapping his cheeks and nodding resolutely. "It's going to be okay, everything's going to be okay."
Finding Hedwig was his first priority, she was sleeping back at the hollow where they had taken day/night roost shifts with a few hours in between for preening and flying together. Hopefully Hedwig would recognise him like this; she had never seen him so small.
The wizard worried his bottom lip as he looked over at the dripping mess that was his pyjamas. He wasn't sure why he had washed them in the first place but he hadn't done a good job of it as a bird. There was a river nearby that he used for drinking water which didn't have lots of plants and muck, he could clean them properly there later but for now... Harry grimaced as he touched the sopping wet fabric. He wasn't going to stand about and watch them dry and he certainly wasn't going to put them on as they were. Well, at least it was summer.
Naked as the day he was born, Harry walked back to the roost tree to find his friend.
"Hedwig!" Harry called up into the branches of their tree. "Are you up there?" It would be a hassle to climb if the owl was sleeping heavily, there weren't many low hanging branches. Just when the wizard set his mind to scaling the tree after all, Hedwig was there looking down at him. She hooted shrilly with what might have been shock before launching herself out of the hollow to meet him on ground level.
"Hey girl, so you recognise me?" Harry held out his arm for her to perch on and laughed as she set to preening his hair with the same vigour she had given his plumage, ignoring the scratches he got from her talons. "I missed talking to you." He chuckled, preening her in turn, his efforts far more sophisticated than they had once been, even with human hands newly restored. "I have no idea how I ended up like this either times- Hedwig, I- I was a phoenix." The boy confided and Hedwig stopped what she was doing, meeting his gaze straight on to show she was listening. "Like Fawkes, you know Fawkes, right?"
Hedwig hooted a 'yes' judging by the bob of her head. His friend was one smart lady.
"Well, anyway, it's great I'm not one any more, as nice as it was while it lasted, the flying especially..." He trailed off before snapping back to the topic at hand, a little reluctantly. "I may not be able to fly any more but we can still get to Hogwarts, I'll gather up some food and-" Hedwig was shaking her head, almost spinning it right around. She twittered a series of bemoaning hoots, gesturing this way and that with her wings before slumping. Harry winced as her claws pricked the underside of his forearm but the pain didn't compare to the sense of dread writhing in his belly. "Hedwig?" He swallowed, "which way is Hogwarts?"
Hedwig took to wing, circling above him once, twice, thrice before dropping onto a branch near his head. She hooted sadly, not meeting his eyes.
"Hedwig… how come you can't- surely-" Harry shuddered uncontrollably. "But you have to know-"
Hedwig shook her head again, this time pulling both her wings up, hiding her face behind the wing joints.
"How- no." The (one hundred percent normal, utterly human) wizard stopped short, taking a deep breath and exhaling it slowly. "I'm not mad. You could always find it before but maybe something's changed." He petted her wings until they fell away, leaving the sensitive sides of her face open to long strokes with just-so curled fingers. "How about Privet Drive? The Burrow?" Both received head shakes. "London?" A sad hoot. "Okay, not your fault, Hedwig. It's okay, don't cry." Wetness trickled down his cheeks and Hedwig transferred herself shakily from the branch to his shoulder, although the second roost shook as much as the branch had when she dismounted. She softly butted her head with his, wiping the tears away.
"Uncle Vernon hit you pretty hard." He confided. "So it's not your fault if your navigation's all mucked up." Her feathers quivered under his stroking hand. "We'll sort this mess out somehow."
Hedwig warbled sadly, unable to tell him the truth even if she wanted to.
A.N.: Well, this has been a long time coming and I'm sorry for that. I'm in full-time work now and the toil of adult life is pretty inspiration-sucking.
Reviews would be so, so appreciated~! What do you think works/doesn't work? Is anything confusing? Where would you like to see this story go?