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Disclaimer – The world of Harry Potter is owned by JK Rowling and various publishers. I make no claim to ownership; I’m just playing in her sandbox whilst I get these story ideas out of my head. Bloody muse won’t leave me alone.

Harry Potter and the Nightmares of Futures Past -

Chapter 27

Harry slowly became aware. It was a very gradual process, hampered by the fact that he seemed to be floating in absolute darkness. Of course, ‘floating’ was his best guess, because he couldn’t feel his body either.

He wondered if he was dead, and was mildly surprised by how little that thought seemed to upset him. He’d made a good effort, but perhaps Fate wasn’t to be denied. She seemed determined to extract her due from the Wizarding world in general and Harry Potter in particular. Part of him wanted to rage against the unfairness of it all, but his emotions seemed to just drain away, leaving him a peaceful, but empty, husk.

Harry felt his awareness fade again, but then he was reminded of what roused him. There were voices, faint but discernable. He focussed on them as a drowning man might cling to a rope.

“Merlin, I can hardly stand to see him lying there like that,” a male voice said quietly. Harry struggled to recognize it as his mind groped through a tangle of new and old memories.

Neville?

“He wouldn’t be here if we’d been where we were supposed to be,” another, slightly deeper, voice growled.

“Ron, you can’t blame yourself. You didn’t have any choice after Professor Snape made you leave,” replied a very precise feminine voice.

“I haven’t forgotten that, Hermione,” Ron’s voice snarled. “That greasy git set Harry up, I know it. He’s hated him since the first day of classes, and now he’s finally tried to kill him… and damn near succeeded.”

“He looked very unhappy when I saw him bringing potions to Madam Pomfrey,” another voice added tonelessly. “His face was very pale, and when she said she wasn’t sure Harry would wake up, he looked quite ill.”

“Luna!” Hermione gasped. “Don’t say that in front of him!”

“Why?” Luna’s voice asked. “If he can hear me, then he’s probably going to wake up anyway. If he can’t, then it doesn’t matter does it?”

Harry found that he didn’t really care that much. There was another voice that should have been there, but it was missing. A thread of anxiety began to pierce the peaceful shroud dragging him back into the darkness. Then it faded.

She’d been increasingly cold and distant since the New Year, so it shouldn’t surprise him if Ginny wasn’t there. Harry felt the almost comforting chill soak into his awareness, numbing it, urging him to rest again.

“Ron, you can stop looking daggers at Luna,” Neville said. “We’re all worried about Ginny too.”

Ginny?

“The entire staff is looking for her,” Hermione said quietly. “They’ll find her Ron. And then we’ll all get detention for not staying in the tower,” she fretted.

“I don’t care,” Ron snapped. “I told Percy someone might take advantage of this to go after Harry. If I knew who had my sister, I’d go after them, but I don’t. At least I can do something useful here.”

“I think Professor Dumbledore knows we are here,” Luna said quietly. “He was looking right at you two when the announcement was made.”

Her skeleton will lie in the Chamber forever,” Hermione recited, not responding to Luna’s words. “What Chamber is that referring to?”

Harry felt fear twist inside him. How could this be happening again?

“I’m not sure, but I think it’s some sort of secret,” Neville said. “All the teachers are looking for it now.”

“But who would kidnap Ginny?” Ron asked, his voice getting rough.

“Professor McGonagall insisted on questioning the Slytherins,” Hermione said. “I heard that she and Professor Snape argued quite loudly about it in the Staff Room. But now Draco and all his friends are still confined to the Slytherin Dungeons, and she’s out looking with the rest of the staff.” She sniffed softly.

“Ginny hasn’t been herself lately,” Luna said suddenly.

“She has been awfully quiet, especially since Harry was hurt,” Neville agreed.

“I know,” Ron said miserably. “She was so worried about him. Madam Pomfrey kicked her out of here half a dozen times in the last month. But she didn’t really talk much. All she did was mope around and write in that bloody diary Harry got her.”

Diary?!? NO!

Harry felt his nonexistent body convulse with horror and then rage at his helplessness.

Then he heard a crash and tinkle of breaking glass.

The darkness exploded with blinding light as Harry Potter opened his eyes. He squinted as he painfully sat up and winced when Hermione let out a piercing scream. He felt hands grip his shoulders, steadying him.

Harry was released just as suddenly, but was still blinking and trying to get his eyes to focus. He almost flinched back when something touched his face, but recognized the smooth plastic. He held still as a red-headed blur slid his glasses onto his face.

That helped a lot, as he blinked, and finally reached under the lenses to wipe away some gunk that had accumulated while he was unconscious. With a little more blinking, the room was mostly in focus. He tried to speak, but all that came out was a dry croak. Harry looked over at the nightstand, but the top of it was covered with a tangle of broken glass, soaked in a multi-coloured mixture of liquids. He coughed and tried to swing his legs off the bed as Neville darted over to the infirmary’s sink.

Neville returned with a glass of water, earning a nod of thanks from Harry as the cool water soothed his dry throat. “Wand,” he said to Ron as he held out his hand.

Ron pulled Harry’s wand out of his robes, but Hermione looked on rather dubiously. “Harry,” she said carefully, “shouldn’t you be staying in bed? You were hurt rather badly. Madam Pomfrey said her salves would keep your muscles from deteriorating too much, but you fractured your skull and you’ve been in a coma for over a month...” Her voice trailed off when she met Harry’s eyes.

Harry straightened his back, then looked down at the hospital pyjamas and grimaced. He shook the pillow out of its pillowcase and let both fall to the floor. He transfigured them into a pair of trainers and pulled them on over his bare feet. He stood up carefully, but everything seemed to be working more or less correctly. He was sore, but functional – though anxiety seemed to be gnawing at the pit of his stomach. “How long ago did Ginny disappear?” he asked, dreading the answer.

“Luna saw her about four hours ago, coming out of Charms,” Ron said quickly.

Harry took a deep breath, all other things being equal, she was probably still alive. “I know where she is,” he finally said, “and I’m going to get her.”

“Not alone you aren’t,” Ron retorted.

Harry gave his oldest friend a weary smile that made the taller boy flinch back. “No, I don’t suppose I am.”

“How do you know where she is?” Hermione asked, clearly confused.

“It’s a long story,” Harry said as he quickly stood up. “How’s your Occlumency?”

Hermione’s eyes widened a bit, and Harry knew she was starting to fill in the gaps. “Let’s move,” he said, “we need to get to Ginny as quickly as possible.” Harry led his friends out of the hospital wing, his legs steadying with every stride. The doors opened before Harry could even reach for them, but he had more important things to think about right then.

Harry hoped that with the staff searching and the students confined to their dormitories, he’d be able to avoid encounters with the curious. Apparently, that wasn’t to be. No sooner did they round the corner in the corridor leading to Madam Pomfrey’s domain, than they encountered three adults.

Gilderoy Lockhart, resplendent in mauve robes with a matching tri-corner hat, was leading Rita Skeeter and her photographer, Bozo, towards the infirmary.

“Harry?” Lockhart gasped, stopping suddenly as he saw them.

“Ah, Mr. Potter, so good to see you awake again,” Rita said, her eyes glittering. “Mr. Lockhart was good enough to escort us to see you. Many people are very concerned about you after your accident.”

“Professor Lockhart,” Hermione asked suddenly, “why aren’t you helping search for Ginny?”

“Oh, er, um,” Lockhart sputtered for a moment, “you see, I already had this appointment set up, and it would be rude to just…”

“Is there some problem?” Rita asked, and Harry thought he even detected a note of concern in her voice. He must have hit his head pretty hard.

“Nothing serious,” Lockhart said quickly. “A silly little girl ran away and has everyone looking for her. I’m sure she’ll be found soon, never you worry. Now Harry,” he added in an avuncular tone, ignoring the murderous glare Ron was giving him, “I was just telling Rita what good friends we’ve become over the course of this year. Why don’t the three of us all go back to my quarters and we can talk about what fun we’ve had?” he asked with an imploring look. “I’ll even forget to mention your friends being out of bounds,” he added.

“Sorry,” Harry said coolly, “one of my friends is in danger and I don’t have time to waste on useless frauds.” He could see Rita’s Quick Quotes Quill moving feverishly behind the Defence Professor.

Lockhart’s eyes widened and he evidently heard the scratch of quill on parchment as well. He spun around with his wand in his hand. “Obliviate!” and Rita and Bozo were both slumping to the floor with glassy-looking eyes.

The overdressed charlatan whirled back toward the mostly stunned students, but Harry’s wand was already out. The Boy Who Lived held it out sideways, clenched in a fist shaking with rage. “Protego Maximus!” he roared as Lockhart finished his spell.

A semi-translucent wall of light spread out from Harry’s fist, expanding until it reached the floor, walls, and ceiling with a loud crunch. Beyond it, he could see Lockhart snapping his wand forward to erase their memories as well. This was one spell the man could perform with great skill, having never been caught once over the course of his entire career. If the bastard succeeded, Ginny’s life would probably be extinguished before they even remembered she was in danger. Harry panicked and reinforced his shield with everything he could put into it. The stones around them groaned and a suit of armour flew to pieces.

There was a bright flash of light, visible even through the shield, and Lockhart was violently thrown backward. Harry held for a moment, and then let the shield drop. He stepped forward, but kept his wand on the professor the entire time. Gilderoy Lockhart lay perfectly still on the hard flagstones, his head turned to one side. His eyes were staring glassily into space, the only signs of life the slow rise and fall of his chest and a thin line of drool creeping down from the corner of his mouth.

“What did you do to him?” Ron asked quietly.

“I think I reflected back a memory charm strong enough to wipe all five of us at once,” Harry said. “Hermione, now we know why he’s never been caught before. He probably let someone else do the dirty work, Obliviated them, and then took all the credit.”

But the bushy-haired witch wasn’t paying much attention. She was staring at the floor. Where Harry’s panic-driven shield had touched the millennia-old stones, a groove three inches wide and at least an inch deep had been gouged. She looked up at Harry, her eyes wide. “What did you do?” she asked.

“I panicked and threw up the strongest shield charm I could think of,” Harry replied truthfully. “We need to hurry, Ginny could be dying,” he added in an agonized voice.

Hermione visibly gathered herself and nodded.

Harry took one last look at the mind-wiped professor. He wasn’t even babbling as he remembered from before. Harry supposed it made sense. Rather than a back-fire from a broken wand, he’d evidently thrown a memory charm strong enough to affect five people, only to have it reflected back in his face. He suspected the man was catatonic now. Fate can have him, Harry decided as he set off down the corridor again. Rita and Bozo would be found soon enough.

There were no more encounters before they reached Moaning Myrtle’s bathroom.

“You’re not supposed to be in here!” the ghost wailed as soon as Harry pushed the door open.

“Sorry, it’s an emergency,” Hermione explained, though she was eyeing Harry rather oddly.

“Oh, you’re looking for that other girl,” Myrtle replied with a knowing smile.

Ron made a strangled noise but Hermione beat him to the punch. “You know where she is?” she asked, outraged, “and you didn’t tell anyone?”

“If she doesn’t make it, I’ll make you wish the Bloody Baron was after you instead,” Harry snarled, “Now get out of the way!”

Myrtle back away slowly, but Harry had enough. He quickly stepped forward, ignoring the biting chill as his shoulder passed through the ghost’s body. Stopping in front of the marked taps, he hissed “Open!”

He turned back to his friends as the taps glowed and the sink descended into the floor. “Yes,” he said, “I know I just spoke in Parseltongue. It was a little gift from Tom when I got this ruddy scar. That’s how they kept this hidden for so long and why none of the staff could find it.” He picked up a bar of soap from the next sink over and transfigured it into a long coil of rope, but he watched his friends out of the corner of his eye, gauging their reactions.

Hermione’s eyes were dancing with questions, but she was visibly restraining herself. Ron nodded, but his eyes were worried. Neville just took a deep breath and helped tie the rope to the thick pipes below the working sink. Luna looked as though she’d been told the house elves were serving roast beef for supper – mildly interested, but not really surprised.

“This is going to be really dangerous: if any of you want to back out now, I’ll not think ill of you,” Harry said quietly once the rope was anchored. He wasn’t sure Fawkes would come, since they hadn’t been introduced yet, and he wasn’t feeling overwhelmingly loyal to Dumbledore at the moment. Better to have another way back out of there.

“Harry! She’s my sister!” Ron said, outraged. The others nodded.

“All right,” Harry acquiesced. “But you need to do exactly what I say when we get down there. Agreed?” Another chorus of nods.

The inside of the pipe was just as foul and slimy as Harry remembered. It would have been better if they’d had their brooms, but any delays while the Diary was sucking away Ginny’s life could be fatal. He had to stop that immediately. The pipe finally levelled out and deposited them on the floor of a damp tunnel. Hermione instantly had her wand out and illuminated the humid darkness.

Harry was on his feet in an instant. As they advanced, their feet began to crunch on rat skeletons. “There’s a basilisk down here,” he whispered, “so keep your eyes down. If it attacks, we use massed blind fire in its direction, physically damaging curses only, it’s too big to stun. Just like one of our covering fire exercises, right?”

“A basilisk?” Neville gasped.

“Yes, and if you meet its gaze, it’ll kill you on the spot,” Harry said, turning toward the boy. “What part of ‘really dangerous’ did you not understand?”

Neville’s eyes flickered toward Luna and Harry noticed the girl’s eyes hardening behind her wire-rimmed spectacles. “We’re all here to save Ginny,” she said. “We’ll have time for long overdue conversations afterward.”

Harry nodded and led them to the end of the tunnel, a wall with two carved serpents. He hissed “Open,” again in Parseltongue, and the serpents parted, splitting the wall with them.

The five Gryffindors then entered the Chamber of Secrets.

The elaborately carved pillars, dim greenish illumination, and echoing footsteps all combined to creep Harry out just as much as last time. He knew what to expect, but that didn’t seem to matter to his racing heart. He was also dreading finding Ginny. He hoped she was still alive… no, she had to be. But he could be wrong. He wasn’t sure what another failure would mean, because his mind shied away from even admitting it was possible. His wand shook in his hand. All his hesitancy, all his doubts, seemed so stupid now.

Harry resisted the urge to break into a run. If things were repeating from last time, Ginny would be on the floor at the base of the statue, on the far side of the chamber. But they needed to stay together; otherwise the Basilisk might pick them off one by one. He must have been insane to let them come down here with him.

Nevertheless, when the statue swam out of the gloom, Ginny’s tiny form sprawled at its feet, Ron let out a sob and broke into a run. The rest of them picked up the pace as well, their footsteps echoing off the ancient stones. As Ron struggled to rouse his sister, Harry’s eyes flickered down to the Diary tucked under her hands. His stomach contracted into a small, icy ball, and his wand trembled in his hand as he looked around.

This time, Harry saw the hateful spectre materialize out of thin air. The tall, handsome dark-haired boy was slightly blurred around the edges, but his gloating smile was all too visible. Harry felt the blood surge in his veins as rage threatened to overcome his reason. This bastard had hurt Ginny, again, and he’d let it happen, again.

“She won’t wake, you know,” the boy observed in a pleasant voice, making the others look up.

“Why not?” Ron demanded.

Tom ignored the question, merely shaking his head. “Is this the best Albus Dumbledore could do? A handful of children? Even if one of them is the famous Boy Who Lived.”

“How do you know that?” Harry asked carefully. He never told the Diary that much about himself when he tested it.

“Oh, I know a great deal about many things now. Some of them, I got from her,” he continued, nodding at Ginny’s silent form. “But she was surprisingly resistant. It took over a month before I could take control, and even then she was strong enough that I knew I wouldn’t be able to suppress her memories afterward.” The boy frowned petulantly. “I was so hoping to have a bit of fun with her first. The daughter of the Mudblood-lover murdering Mudbloods when she’s away at school, that would be a nice bit of irony, wouldn’t it?”

Ron’s wand was up in an instant, but the stunning spell merely passed through Tom’s chest with no effect. Hermione gasped.

“You can’t hurt me, you know,” the older boy said with a superior smile.

“He’s right,” Harry agreed, “he’s just a shade of a memory, generated by a Horcrux.”

That cracked the shade’s composure. “How…?”

“I know a great deal about many things,” Harry said mockingly. “Like how a half-blood orphan grew up with so much hate that he threw away his humanity to become a madman bent on killing Mudbloods and Muggles like his father.”

Naturally, Hermione put it all together first. “Voldemort?” she asked.

“This ponce is Voldemort?” Ron asked incredulously.

“This is a memory of him when he was Head Boy,” Harry corrected, watching the spectre’s edges become blurry as it struggled to control itself. He decided to twist the knife a bit further. “At least he’s somewhat presentable. Later, he looked like something that escaped from one of Snape’s preserving jars.”

“That’s pretty bad, Harry,” Neville said with a shudder.

“Don’t blame Harry,” Luna added, patting Neville’s shoulder comfortingly. “It’s not his fault this silly boy wanted his outsides to look like his insides.”

Harry struggled to keep his voice light. Part of him wanted to rage at Riddle and part of him was horrified to see Ginny in this place again. He ruthlessly suppressed both of them – he needed to stick to the very rough plan he’d made. “It’s okay, Tom, you never seemed to have much imagination – but we all have our limitations. Don’t worry everyone: he can’t touch us, so let’s concentrate on breaking his hold on Ginny and waking her up. Then Tom can go back to sleep.”

“I may not be able to touch you,” Tom grated, “but I know what can! Speak to me Slytherin, Greatest of the Hogwarts Four!” he continued in Parseltongue.

Everyone turned as the sound of grinding stones filled the chamber. The mouth of the massive statue opened, revealing a large dark hole. “Wands out!” Harry snapped. “Gather around Ginny, sight on that hole, and then look down. The Basilisk will come out of there, so don’t look up until it’s over.” He purposefully placed himself in the gathering around Ginny so that he was closest to the statue.

His wand trembled in his hand as his ears strained to hear the first hiss. There was a thud as something huge struck the floor. “Kill them!” Tom commanded in Parseltongue.

“Fire!” Harry snapped. It felt odd, casting spells blindly, but he kept his eyes fixed on the floor. His first Reducto was apparently a lucky hit, because it was followed by an explosive hiss like a damaged boiler. He kept on with that, pushing his magic to do as much damage as possible, hoping a hit would force the king of serpents back a pace or two. He needed to buy as much time as possible for them to kill the thing, otherwise what its fangs didn’t bite, its sheer bulk would crush.

But from the sounds of shattering stone, they were apparently missing as much as they hit. The hissed exclamations from the basilisk seemed to draw closer and closer. Harry finally felt something rear up above him, and he could see a faint shadow stretching toward him in the gloom. He risked raising his eyes a little and in his peripheral vision he saw the giant snake’s bright green underbelly, scarred and damaged from spells. It was rearing back to strike. Even if Harry dodged, it would probably crush Ginny.

Tom apparently realized that as well. “Not her!” he screamed in Parseltongue.

Before the snake could even register the command, Harry screamed “Diffindo!” aiming his wand at the exact centre of the cracked belly scales. The cutting charm punched through the snake’s underside in a splash of dark blood. The lower section began to thrash wildly, while the upper portion toppled over to the side. Blood poured onto the stones from the massive rent, and Harry knew from its disorganized motions that the spine was severed.

He stepped to the side and glanced at Tom Riddle, who in turn stared incredulously at the dying basilisk. Harry couldn’t help but note that his outline was even sharper than before. He then turned to his friends, relieved to see that they’d followed his instructions, and were in fact still looking down at the floor. “Grab Ginny and move back!” he said. Ron and Neville picked her up, while Hermione diverted the tide of ichor with a wave of her wand.

Harry let out a sigh of relief and started to follow them when he heard the nearby scrape of scales on stone. Acting on instinct, he threw himself to the side, but a stunning impact on his back sent him tumbling across the floor. He thudded against Neville, almost knocking him over. Winded and sore, he looked up without thinking, right into the eyes of the basilisk… which were already glazing over in death.

“It doesn’t matter,” Tom Riddle snarled defiantly. “She’s almost gone now, and when she expires, I’ll be completely here and then I can kill you all. Slowly.”

Harry climbed shakily to his feet as Hermione worked on Ginny, first with Finite Incantatem and then an Awakening Charm, neither of which had any effect. He limped over to the dead basilisk’s head, ignoring the gasps behind him. “Tom,” he said slowly, “there’s always a way to kill vermin. Accio Diary!” He winced as the Diary flew to his left hand. Adrenalin does funny things, and he hadn’t realized he’d scraped it during his tumble.

The basilisk’s mouth was slightly open as the muscles relaxed in death. Harry jammed the diary onto one of the sabre-like fangs, right through the bloody hand-print he’d left on the cover.

“No!” Tom’s shade screamed, reaching out toward Harry, even as he doubled over.

“This makes five times now,” Harry said softly. The spectre’s eyes widened with shock and fear. Harry gave the bottom of the basilisk’s jaw a roundhouse kick, snapping it shut and driving a pair of fangs into the book. Black ink poured out of the monster’s mouth.

Tom’s voice rose into an agonized shriek as he writhed and twisted into nothingness.

Harry let out a sigh and turned back to the basilisk. He carefully pried the jaws apart and retrieved the shredded diary. He limped wearily over to his friends, even as Ginny’s eyes fluttered open. She sat up, coughing and confused, while the strength slowly bled out of Harry’s legs.

“Harry?” she asked, sounding bewildered and a little scared.

That single word shattered Harry’s control and he knelt on the stones next to this girl he’d nearly lost again. He didn’t even remember picking her up, he just realized that he had his arms around her, his ear pressed against her chest, holding her as tightly as he could. The sound of her heartbeat calmed him, but he still found himself babbling. “Oh Ginny, I’m so sorry. This is my fault, this is all my fault. I screwed it up again. You could have died again. I…” The feel of her arms wrapping tightly around his neck made him pause, and he inhaled convulsively.

Slowly, he became aware of what he was doing and loosened his arms. Ginny sat back down, but her hands lingered on his forearms. “You’re awake,” she said.

Harry nodded.

“That Diary wasn’t from you, was it?” she asked.

Harry hesitated, but still nodded. “I had it locked up in my trunk. How did you get it?” He noticed Ron and Neville exchange a quick look.

“It came by owl post a couple of days after you were hurt. The paper inside said it was a gift you’d ordered for me.” Her face coloured, losing some of its unnatural pallor. “I am such an idiot,” she whispered.

“No more than me, maybe less, even,” Harry disagreed. “You were tricked, that’s all. And Voldemort’s fooled a lot of people over the years.”

“Voldemort?” Ginny gasped.

“Tom Riddle grew up to become Lord Voldemort,” Harry explained. “He left a piece of his soul behind in that diary. That’s one of the things that kept him alive after his curse rebounded on him.”

“Harry?” Hermione asked hesitantly, “How do you know this?”

Harry let out a long sigh. Ginny’s hand squeezed his forearm, helping him come to a decision. “Your Occlumency was almost there before I was attacked. How is it now?”

“I can’t get through to anyone anymore,” Hermione said. “But you should try as well to make sure,” she added hesitantly.

Harry nodded and closed his eyes. He reached out and tested everyone’s defences, but none of them yielded in the slightest, not even Ginny. He supposed that was because she didn’t trust him anymore, but he deserved no better.

He let go of Ginny completely and sat down. “Might as well make yourselves comfortable,” he said, “this might take a while. At least we’re in an appropriate place,” he added.

“Speak for yourself, Harry,” Ron said with a grimace.

“This place is called the Chamber of Secrets,” Harry announced, “and if there is any place we won’t be overheard, this is it.”

“Until someone finds the rope, Harry,” Neville reminded him.

“Right,” Harry agreed. “Once there was a boy named Harry Potter. When he was eleven years old, he discovered he was a wizard, and he came to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry to ‘learn the family business’, as it were.”

Everyone was giving him some strange looks, but Harry ignored them and forged ahead. “Things went well and Harry made some good friends. But then, at the end of his fourth year, Voldemort’s minions captured Harry and used some of his blood to resurrect the Dark Lord. People began to die. Students, his godfather, Dumbledore… eventually the Wizarding world was consumed in one massive war.”

Most of them were looking at Harry blankly, or in outright disbelief. Hermione, however, was frowning until she let out a little gasp. “We all died, didn’t we?” she asked in a small voice.

Harry nodded slowly, not trusting his voice to respond. “In the end, Harry won, but it was awful. He found a way to send his… memories… back in time to his younger self. To stop it from happening again.”

“But Harry!” Hermione objected, “that’s taking an awful risk. Maybe he, or you, won’t win this time.”

“I don’t see how it could have ended any worse, even if Voldemort won,” Harry said tightly.

Ron’s face had gone so pale that his freckles stood out like beacons. “All of us – we all died?” he repeated numbly.

“Harry?” Hermione asked carefully, “If it’s possible to send memories back in time like that, why hasn’t it been done before? Why didn’t the Ministry use that to stop it from happening?”

“Well, one, because I came up with it, with Dumbledore’s help, of course,” he replied. “I never studied Arithmancy before then.”

“I though you said he died?” Neville asked, shaking himself out of his stupor.

“His portrait,” Harry clarified. “It was about the only thing to survive Hogwarts when it fell.”

“Hogwarts fell?” Hermione gasped, but then caught herself with a visible effort. She fixed Harry with a piercing glare she must have learned from Professor McGonagall. “What else are you leaving out? Why are you the only person to send their memories back? Surely others would have helped.”

Harry took a deep breath. He knew Hermione would drag out all the details, and he needed to stop hiding things if he wanted to ever have friends again. “You can’t send anything physical back in time by this method – the best you can do is send back something carrying human memories.  The easiest way to do that is to separate the soul from the body.”

“You bloody killed yourself?” Ron demanded, outraged. Hermione and Neville looked ill, while Ginny just stared at him, her mouth hanging open. Luna merely nodded, looking thoughtful.

“Sort of,” Harry admitted. “The future me arrived in the middle of my dreams one night after my eleventh birthday. He said he didn’t have anything left to live for. Once we… merged… I could see what he meant.”

“Those ruddy nightmares,” Ron breathed.

Harry nodded. “Most of them are memories from my future self, replaying as I sleep. I think it was even worse for him. I’m slowly building up memories and experiences to counter those. The five of you are not exactly like the people he remembers, and that helps, in a way.”

“We’re different?” Hermione asked carefully, “In what ways?”

Harry braced himself. Better to just get it out in the open now and let them hate him. Better to not have it hanging over his head. “Well, first time around, we weren’t immediately friends. I didn’t really get to know Ginny, Neville, or Luna until my fifth year.” Ginny’s eyes snapped up to meet his and it was all he could do not to flinch away. “Luna, you were originally sorted into Ravenclaw, but you really hated it there because you were being harassed by the Ravenclaws. I asked the Sorting Hat to help. Ron I met on the train, but Hermione, you weren’t really friends with Ron or me until after the Troll in the bathroom incident.”

“That’s how you bloody knew something was going to happen that day!” Ron exclaimed.

Harry nodded. “Quirrell released it to cover an attempt to steal the Stone. There was no reason to expect that not to happen again.”

“And when you got him at the end of the year…” Neville continued.

“Yeah, I knew what he was up to. But instead of the three of us fighting through the obstacles the staff set up to protect the stone, I went alone and ambushed him as he was sneaking past Hagrid’s three-headed dog. Fluffy did all the work. I’m sorry I lied to you all, but I couldn’t explain without Snape finding out, and honestly I only needed to cast one stinging charm to do him in.” Harry took another deep breath. “I also didn’t want to risk any of you getting hurt,” he admitted in a small voice.

As he expected, Ron’s face was growing thunderous.

Hermione laid her hand on his arm and he visibly collected himself. “Harry,” she said quietly, “you’ve been deceiving us since we first met, haven’t you?”

Harry tried not to flinch as her words struck home. “I suppose I have,” he admitted. “I knew some of what was going to happen, or rather, what might happen, and I acted on that knowledge. First time around we didn’t study martial arts. We never really studied defence or duelling all that seriously until fifth year. I wanted you all to be ready, to be prepared for what’s coming. I don’t want to lose you all again,” he concluded.

“But we’re not even the same people, are we?” Ginny asked.

“Perhaps not,” Harry said. “Maybe I’ve tried not to repeat mistakes I’ve made. Maybe I’ve tried to be a better friend, to be more understanding. Hermione needed someone to support her when she wanted us to take our studies seriously. I didn’t before, and that was a mistake. If we’d known more magic, maybe we’d have survived longer. Ron, the first time through I was embarrassed about my problems, and I shut you out. And then I was stupid enough to feel betrayed when you didn’t understand me or became jealous. Neville, Luna, I had no idea what great people you were until I grew up a little and got to know you both. I just didn’t waste time with my second chance.”

He looked at Ginny, and his tongue stuck to the roof of his mouth. He knew what he wanted to say, but it wouldn’t be fair to lay it all on her right now. If she asked him directly though…

“What about me?” she asked.

“I ignored you for five years.  If I thought of you at all, it was just as Ron’s little sister; until the day you laid into me during your fourth year when I was being a spectacular prat. I made sure not to make those mistakes this time around.”

Harry took a breath to continue, but realized that he’d run out of things to say. A lot of his arguments sounded like tedious self-justification anyway. “You’re right, Hermione, you’re right, I’ve been lying to you since the first day,” he said, his voice becoming rough. Hot tears burned in his eyes as he realized this was turning into his worst-case scenario. “But what would you have done in my place? I don’t expect you all to like it, but please keep doing the training, at least among yourselves, so you can stay – “

His words were cut off when Ginny slammed into him so hard he almost fell over backward. Her arms wrapped around his ribs, her face pressed up against his filthy hospital wing pyjamas. She was murmuring something that sounded like ‘you stupid prat.’  He felt a steadying hand on his left shoulder and looked up to see Luna. She knelt down and slid her arm around his back. Neville joined her, his arms going around Luna and Ginny. The Hermione was on his right, tears streaming down her face as she buried her face on his right shoulder. Ron joined them a moment later, gingerly wrapping his arms around Hermione and his sister.

Maybe I am a bastard, Harry thought, maybe I’ve manipulated them as badly as Dumbledore ever manipulated me. Maybe I don’t deserve their forgiveness. But they didn’t seem to care. They held onto him like they were afraid he’d be torn away from them. He realized the front of his filthy pyjama top was damp from Ginny’s tears, and then he realized he was crying as well. Wait a minute, I don’t cry. I never have, not since… But I have them back, don’t I? All the way back. All of his friends were back and suddenly, he didn’t care. He let out a sob and held them tighter. He was shaking like a leaf, but he didn’t care.

OoOoO

Afterwards, Harry couldn’t ever exactly recall how long they’d huddled together. He knew enough time had elapsed for the worst of his tremors to pass, as well as for his legs to grow sore from the hard stone. His breathing was back to normal when Ron gave a start.

“Do you think they’ve contacted Mum and Dad?” he asked.

Harry felt Ginny, who was still hugging him, stiffen. “I’m in so much trouble,” she said in a muffled voice.

“No, you’re not,” Harry said firmly. “Older and wiser people than us have been tricked by Voldemort, including Professor Dumbledore’s predecessor.” The arms around him loosened as his friends stood up.

“Mum’s going to kill me,” Ginny insisted, looking up at him now. Her eyes were bright red from crying and her face was a dirty mess from the front of his pyjamas.

Harry smiled down at her. “Maybe, but only if she hugs you to death by accident,” he allowed.

“We’re still going to be in trouble for coming down here instead of staying in our common area,” Hermione fretted.

Harry shrugged as Ginny stood up, weaving a little until Ron steadied her. “We’ll just tell Professor Dumbledore ‘we had a choice between doing what was right and what was easy’.” His legs were so numb that Ron and Neville both had to help Harry to his feet.

“That sounds like a quote,” Hermione remarked thoughtfully, “who said that?”

“He did,” Harry replied, but then shook his head suddenly, “or rather, he will.”

“That’s going to get right confusing after a while,” Ron observed with a smile. Neville chuckled.

Harry laughed out loud. He felt so relieved he was almost euphoric. Well, he had hit his head pretty hard, according to Hermione. “You should look at it from my perspective,” he said with a smile.

“What does it look like from your end of time?” Luna asked suddenly.

Harry sobered a little, looking around. Hermione’s light spell cast strange, flickering shadows across the pillars and the ancient statue. “Okay, I’ll tell you anything you want to know, anything at all. But I think we should make sure we never discuss certain things where anyone else can hear. And I’ll answer any questions you might have, but you may want to think about whether you really want to know the answers or not. I won’t keep something back for your own good,” Harry vowed, his eyes hardening as he spoke the last four words, “but there are some things you might not want to know right now.”

Hermione looked thoughtful, and Harry thought her eyes might have flickered toward Ron for a moment.

Ron, however, had no hesitations. “Do the Cannons ever win the League Cup?” he asked quickly.

“Not even close,” Harry answered instantly. He’d been expecting that question.

“Damn…” Ron said in an anguished voice, “I see what you mean now about not wanting to know.”

“At least Quidditch games are sufficiently random that they don’t repeat exactly like before,” Harry reassured his friend.

“But Chudley will always be awful,” Neville said with a smile, earning a glare from their number one fan.

“Anything else for right now?” Harry asked.

“I think,” Hermione said carefully, her eyes roving from person to person, “we should all think about this, a little, before we ask our questions. If Mr. and Mrs. Weasley know about Ginny, they are probably frantic by now – and maybe the professors know that we’re missing as well.”

Harry and the others nodded. “You’re right,” he said, “let’s get moving.” He could still feel the tension bleeding off as they walked, but his legs grew steadier. He could hardly believe they let him off the hook like that. They were better friends than he deserved. He felt someone’s eyes on him and turned to the left, only to see Luna shaking her head. He frowned at the girl, one eyebrow raised questioningly.

“You don’t seem to like yourself very much, do you?” she asked softly, her wire-frames glinting slightly in the light thrown off by Hermione’s Lumos spell.

Harry tripped, and barely caught himself before he fell. You’d think I’d be used to this by now, he thought wryly. “I’ve had to do some things I’m not very proud of,” he said quietly.

“But for good reasons?” she asked.

“The road to hell is paved with good intentions,” Harry said thickly. He didn’t turn around, but he could feel eyes on his back.

“I thought it went to Bristol,” Luna said absently, “or was it Gloucester?” She frowned, pursing her lips. “Anyway,” she continued, “how can we be angry with you, if you did it for us because you loved us?”

“Er…” Harry didn’t really have an answer for that one. A set of tiny fingers wrapped around his right hand, and he felt a flush of shame. Ginny had just been through a horrendous experience, nearly dying, and now here she was trying to comfort him.  Pathetic, that’s what it was. “I’m fine,” he said quickly, “I’m just a little disoriented, I think.”

They accepted that, but Ginny didn’t let go of his hand, so he wasn’t sure she believed his explanation. Eager to change the subject, he came to a stop as soon as they passed the split wall that marked the edge of the Chamber. “Close!” he hissed in Parseltongue. The wall slid slowly shut behind them, until the carved snakes met in the middle again.

“Why did you seal it up again?” Neville asked.

“Because there’s a dead Basilisk in there, probably the largest one seen this millennium. An apothecary will pay good money for just a bit of skin or some blood, so it’s worth a fortune,” Harry replied.

“But Harry, it’s been living in the school all this time,” Hermione protested.

“Yes, but we killed it,” Harry reminded her. “You won’t find many wizards willing to face one of those things, no matter what the reward.” He felt Ginny’s fingers tighten around his hand and he silently cursed his wagging tongue. He turned to the girl, who was looking horribly guilt-ridden. “It’s not your fault,” he reminded her. “That Diary was designed to do just what it did. You had no reason to suspect otherwise, and from what it said, you resisted it even harder this time… Tom knew he couldn’t control you enough to suppress your memories of what happened. Now, what I want to know is how that ruddy book got out of my trunk.”

“Er, Harry,” Ron spoke up as they continued walking toward the pipe, “someone broke into your trunk the day you fell. When we got back from the match, we saw that before anyone told us you’d been hurt. We thought you were still in detention at the time…” he frowned as his voice trailed off.

“I didn’t fall, I was stunned from behind by Draco,” Harry corrected, but he wondered.

He remembered going stiff as a board as the stunner knocked him out. Had someone else been there with a wand? That other spell practically guaranteed that he fell over backward instead of just slumping to the ground.

“I can’t believe I was unconscious a whole month,” he groaned

“Longer,” Hermione corrected him. “Harry, you had a very bad skull fracture. Madam Pomfrey wasn’t sure… she wasn’t sure you’d make it,” she continued in a tight voice.

Neville nodded, adding “She wanted to send you to Saint Mungo’s once you were stabilized, but Professor Dumbledore wouldn’t allow it. He said it wasn’t safe.”

“He may have been right about that,” Harry replied slowly. He didn’t fancy being in such an insecure location when he was helpless. At least if Professor Dumbledore was keeping him at Hogwarts for safety reasons, then he was probably also limiting who could get to him in the hospital wing. At least, he hoped that was the case. He noticed Ron was still looking a little queasy. “Is there more bad news?” he asked.

“Your cloak,” Ron said quickly. “It was gone from your trunk. We thought that was why someone broke in, we had no idea about the diary…” the red-headed boy’s voice trailed off.

Harry felt the muscles along his jaw tighten. That cloak was one of the few things he’d had of his father’s. “Anything else missing?” he asked in a low voice.

Neville shook his head. “Not that we could tell,” the round-faced boy replied.

Harry frowned. He’d need to make a thorough inventory when he had the chance. He wondered if the gun had been taken, or if the thief even recognized what it was. “Let’s get up that pipe as quickly as we can,” he said.

When they finally reached the large pipe leading up to Moaning Myrtle’s bathroom, it didn’t look very inviting. The slime and muck that coated the insides of the pipe made it far too slippery to climb. Regretting the absence of Fawkes even more, Harry suggested they cast lightening charms on themselves and try climbing the rope with their hands. With their weight reduced to less than a stone apiece, climbing hand over hand was indeed possible.

Harry urged them to hurry. He was fairly sure his transfigured rope would last a while, but it was better not to take any chances. Ron argued a bit about Harry going up last, but Harry insisted. Once his friend was a good way up the pipe, Harry cast one last nervous glance behind him at the tunnel and started up the rope.

He’d hoped he could steady himself with his feet as he climbed, letting them just slide along the slimy pipe. After the pipe narrowed a bit, Harry found himself dropping to his knees, grimacing as the cold slime soaked through the thin pyjamas and coated his skin. Despite the weight reducing charm, Harry’s shoulders began to burn, and he was forcibly reminded that he’d been confined to a bed for more than a month. Harry found himself questioning if he’d be able to make it when he felt the rope moving on its own and he was pulled up the pipe even faster. In short order, he found himself sitting on the floor of the bathroom, rubbing the soreness out of his shoulders and thinking ruefully of how much his next sparring session was going to suck.

“Are you all right?” Ginny asked in a concerned voice.

Harry nodded. “A bit wobbly. I just need to get back into shape again, that’s all.” He looked up at her and tried to smile. It must not have been one of his better performances, because she still looked a bit dubious. Harry took a deep breath and climbed to his feet. He grimaced. Every one of them was smeared with slime, front as well as back now. “Cleaning charms all around?” he asked.

Hermione nodded quickly, pulling out her wand. “Scourgify!” she said, waving it at Ron. A section of his robes was suddenly slime-free. He promptly returned the favour, and soon all of them were casting at each other. In moments, they weren’t exactly clean, but they were somewhat presentable. Dripping slime on the floors would no doubt earn a detention with Filch, though as far as rule-breaking went, Harry knew that would have been the least of their offences that day.

Not wishing to delay the inevitable any longer, Harry led them out into the corridor. There was no sign of anyone, staff or students, so he led his friends directly to Dumbledore’s office. If the Headmaster hadn’t been sacked, as happened the first time around, then that’s where the search would probably be coordinated from. And if Harry was wrong, Fawkes might know where Dumbledore was.

The empty corridors seemed to echo rather ominously. Harry suppressed a shudder as memories of the ruined and blasted but equally silent halls of another Hogwarts from another time intruded. This is not that place, he reminded himself as a rising tide of despair threatened to engulf him, and it never will be. He found his eyes wandering over toward Ginny, and he felt his heart lighten. She’s still here, he reminded himself, it’s not going to happen this time..

The gargoyle was in place, guarding the door to the Headmaster’s office. Harry was about to start listing off all the Muggle sweets he knew when he had a sudden idea. “You can communicate with the Headmaster, right?” he asked the unmoving stone. “Let him know we are out here, and I bet he says to let us in.”

Ron and Neville both looked at Harry like he’d gone mad. But a moment later the gargoyle moved aside. Harry gave them a quick smirk, but as he rode the moving spiral staircase up into the office he braced himself.

“The Board of Governors had heard about this disappearance, and, combined with the unfortunate incident last month, they are a bit concerned about how the school is being run,” a smooth voice said. Harry recognized it as belonging to Lucius Malfoy, and found his fingers tightening around his wand. “Your flat refusal to send the boy to Saint Mungo’s has struck many as an ill-concealed desire to maintain control over your little celebrity,” the man continued, “even if it should delay his recovery.”

“Now see here!” a voice interrupted, one Harry recognized as that of his legal guardian, Arthur Weasley, “Professor Dumbledore explained his reasons to our satisfaction. Harry’s getting the best care possible right here.”

“Ah, yes, and I am sure the Ministry will be fascinated when it is informed of your complicity in the Headmaster’s actions. There are many who believe the outcome of that hearing was wrongly decided, and are looking for any reason to re-address the issue.” The elder Malfoy’s voice dripped with malice.

Now at the top of the stairway, Harry opened the polished oak door and sauntered into the room. “You know, it’s truly heart warming to hear that so many people are concerned with my well-being,” he said in a casual drawl.

Seated near the fireplace were a distraught-looking Mr. and Mrs. Weasley. Professor McGonagall was standing near them. Professor Dumbledore was sitting at his desk, with Professor Snape beside him, while Lucius Malfoy stood in front of it, his face pale with ill-concealed anger. Dobby, wrapped in heavy bandages, cowered at his feet. With the addition of Harry and his friends, the room should have become a little crowded. There was still space, however, and Harry wondered if it automatically expanded to accommodate however many people had business with the Headmaster.

“Harry?” Mrs. Weasley gasped, then “Ginny!” she cried as her daughter entered the office. She was out of her chair in a flash, jostling Lucius Malfoy roughly aside as she swept both Harry and Ginny into a fierce hug. Arthur was just a step behind her and Ron was nearly strangled as well.

“But… how did you…?” Professor McGonagall, not one usually at a loss for words, was nearly speechless.

“That’s a very good question, isn’t it?” Snape observed in an insinuating tone.

“I daresay we might all be interested in that,” Dumbledore said, “but perhaps we should first let Madam Pomfrey make sure their ordeals have done them no lasting harm.” His twinkling eyes shifted toward Mr. Malfoy as he finished.

Harry understood the Headmaster’s point, but the tale he’d constructed would work just as well on the former Death-Eaters. “I had some very interesting dreams while I was unconscious, after Mr. Malfoy’s son attacked me,” he said calmly.

“You dare accuse my son!” Lucius snapped angrily. “I’ll have you expelled.”

“I recognized his voice from when he cast the stunning spell,” Harry replied calmly. Then his eyes narrowed. “From the back of course, as he’s too cowardly to try it from the front.” He decided not to mention the possible other spell, as it might muddy the waters.

“We’ve only your word for it,” Snape observed coolly. “Draco has several friends who he was studying with at the time of the attack.”

“It’s interesting that you’d already checked his alibi,” Arthur Weasley observed. His voice was even, but his ears and neck were a dangerous shade of red.

“Of course he would,” Lucius replied, running a thumb over the head of his cane. Knowing about the hidden dagger, Harry knew the man was probably fantasizing about stabbing his nemesis. “It’s obvious that someone like you would seek to take advantage of the situation after this clumsy boy managed to fall down the stairs.”

“Mr. Potter was indeed struck by a stunning spell,” McGonagall corrected him, “and it interfered with his treatment until we realized this and neutralized it. But what I’d like to know is the circumstances that prompted Mr. Potter to return to the dungeons.”

“Return?” Harry asked, confused. “I was just leaving after my detention.”

McGonagall and Dumbledore exchanged a quick glance. Harry turned toward Hermione. “Do you know what they’re talking about?” he asked her.

Hermione nodded. “I was there when they questioned the Fat Lady. She said several hours after you left for your detention, you returned for a few minutes and then left again.”

Harry shook his head. “That wasn’t me. I never made it back to Gryffindor Tower.”

Hermione’s eyes widened as Harry’s implications seemed to sink in. For that matter, Harry’s brain seemed to be moving at a hundred miles an hour as he began to fill in the missing pieces. He looked up and locked eyes with Professor Dumbledore. Those blue orbs twinkled as hard as ever, but Harry didn’t feel the distinctive touch of the man’s Legilimency on his shields. Then quite deliberately, he looked off into the distance over Harry’s left shoulder.

Harry turned, acting as though lost in thought, as Lucius Malfoy again threatened to have Arthur sacked for daring to accuse a Malfoy. There was no one standing to the right of the door. Not that he could see anyway.

Harry always wondered how Professor Dumbledore could see through invisibility cloaks. It couldn’t be that easy, could it? He wondered. The he reached out with his Legilimency and sensed a consciousness – right there, radiating equal portions of frustration and glee. An instant later his wand was up and he was casting a banishing charm.

He was rewarded with a thud and groan as something was slammed against the wall. Harry cut his eyes down toward the cowering Dobby and gave the house elf a quick wink and nodded toward a rippling motion in the air as something was pinned against the wall.

The air seemed to fold back on itself and suddenly Draco Malfoy’s head appeared and the hood of a cloak slid down as he struggled. Dobby rushed to the boy’s side, mincing from foot to foot and wringing his hands.

“Mr. Malfoy!” McGonagall exclaimed.

“You should learn to breathe a bit more quietly when you’re excited, Draco. I believe you have my property,” Harry snarled. He raised his wand until it was pointed directly at the boy’s face. “It’s a little harder to be brave when you aren’t stunning someone from behind, isn’t it? Now drop the cloak before I get creative.”

Thrashing and cursing, Draco managed to pull the cloak off and threw it to the floor… right on top of Dobby.

The house elf promptly disappeared under the cloak.

“So, thief,” Harry said scornfully. “I suppose you found some way to look like me to get access to my room. According to Hogwarts, A History, the doorway portraits can see through simple glamours. So that leaves what..?”

“Polyjuice potion,” Hermione blurted out.

Harry nodded slowly. “If you had it brewed already, you just had to cut off a bit of my hair and add it to the brew.”

“But Harry,” Hermione objected, “Polyjuice isn’t part of the regular Potions curriculum; it was just mentioned in passing, but I think the only book that has it is in the restricted section of the library.”

“One you should be quite familiar with,” Professor Snape observed in an acid tone.

“You’re right Hermione,” Harry said, slowly turning, “Draco had to have help to brew something that complex… not to mention the fact that someone had to tell him the password to get past the Fat Lady.” His eyes came to rest on Professor Snape, whose expression grew murderous.

Professor Dumbledore’s eyes lost a good bit of their twinkle as he turned toward his Potions master. “Severus?” he asked quietly.

Snape let out a sigh and visibly gathered himself. “Very well. Draco approached me about a matter of some concern to both of us. From some… incidents… that occurred during the previous year, it was thought that Potter had somehow acquired an illicit means of moving around the grounds.”

Harry wondered how much Snape knew about the events surrounding Norbert’s evacuation. He’d even stunned and Obliviated the professor at one point to keep Hagrid’s secret safe. He supposed Snape might have reconstructed his afternoon to a certain point, and then reasoned out the rest. On the other hand, smuggling Norbert to the roof would have been impossible without the cloak. Harry was sure Neville’s memories had included them using it. So Snape probably knew Harry had it.

McGonagall’s fingers were twitching at Snape’s words, and Harry wondered what would have happened if she’d had a wand in her hand. Dumbledore’s face was very grave, and he looked every one of his years at that moment. “Severus,” he said slowly, “Harry’s possession of the cloak was known to me. His father left it with me, and I passed it on to him. With the… circumstances… surrounding him, I felt that he would be safer if he had the means to move invisibly, or to escape if it came down to that.”

Snape’s face grew even paler as his features twisted into a mask of outrage. “You knew he had it?” he spat.

“Yes, Severus,” Professor Dumbledore answered wearily, “and if you had shared your suspicions with me, this whole series of events could have been avoided.”

Neville let out a small sigh, reminding Harry that he’d never told his friends that the cloak had been given to him by Professor Dumbledore. They’d probably been worried that he’d get in trouble for simply owning it, present or not.

Professor McGonagall peered at the visibly fidgeting Draco, and then back at her colleague. “He didn’t tell you he found it, did he?” she asked with a wintry smile.

Snape drew himself up coldly. “No. He said he was unable to find anything incriminating when he searched Potter’s trunk.” His gaze swept the room, his eyes narrowing when they reached Draco and his father.

“You talk as though this was just a room inspection,” Molly half-shouted. “Harry almost died when that… that murderous little thug attacked him!”

“Draco was instructed to use a simple stunning spell,” Snape corrected her coldly. “Potter would, at the most, have sustained a bruise or two, were he not clumsy enough to manage falling down the stairs as well.”

“That happens when you get hit with a stunner when you’re halfway up a flight of stairs,” Harry explained, acerbically. “Funny how this whole plot was concocted with the sole aim of getting Draco into my trunk. The cloak, of course, was just a red herring.”

“A what?” Ron whispered.

“The real objective,” Harry continued, tossing the mangled diary onto the Headmaster’s desk, “was this.”

Harry watched Lucius Malfoy’s face out of the corner of his eye, and was rewarded to see his eyes narrow in fury when they saw the sodden mass of paper. “Your old master really isn’t going to be happy with you,” Harry chided him.

“What is that?” Arthur Weasley asked curiously. Harry couldn’t help but notice his right hand was hovering suspiciously close to his pocket.

“That’s the diary Mr. Malfoy slipped into Ginny’s cauldron when he ran into us at Flourish and Blotts. I was a little suspicious, so I took it out when I brought her books upstairs. It is, or rather, it was a diary that wrote back to you as you wrote in it, rather like an instant pen pal. I had a little talk with it after we arrived at Hogwarts and decided I didn’t quite trust it. It claimed to be a former Hogwarts student, but it never would give me a straight answer about anything.”

“Who did it claim to be?” Dumbledore asked in a subdued voice as he examined the torn pages, each as blank as the others.

“Tom Marvolo Riddle, that’s the ‘TMR’ on the cover. Funny how that’s an anagram of ‘I am Lord Voldemort’, isn’t it? After that, I decided to keep it under wraps until I’d sussed out a means of destroying it. It turned out to be fireproof, but basilisk venom seems to have done the trick.”

How did you acquire basilisk venom?” Professor Snape snapped.

“From the basilisk, of course,” Harry replied blandly.

“Harry,” Professor Dumbledore said reprovingly.

“Yes, Professor,” Harry replied meekly. “The chamber contained a rather large basilisk. The, er, essence of Tom Riddle contained in the Diary was able to speak to it and ordered it to attack us. We ended up having to kill it.”

“How on earth did you manage to kill a basilisk?” Professor McGonagall demanded. “You should have died you the moment you saw it.”

“We knew approximately where it was coming from,” Harry answered, “so we kept our eyes down and blind-fired an awful lot of curses in its general direction. A sixty-foot snake is kind of hard to miss.” He noticed several of the adults flinch at his casual mention of the snake’s size, but there were other questions as well. 

“But how did Ginny even get that Diary?” Molly asked.

“I got an owl,” Ginny said in a very small voice, “a couple of days after Harry… fell. It was carrying a package wrapped in paper and had a note that said Harry had ordered it for me from Flourish and Blotts. I was so worried, it was nice to have someone, er, something to talk to about… things,” she concluded miserably. “Today, I was writing about how worried I was and… suddenly everything went dark and I heard a voice say that if I was so concerned about Harry, it would send me to be with him. When I woke up again, I was on the floor, and everyone was around me and Harry was p-picking me up….” Her voice broke as she shuddered and Molly was hugging her again and smoothing the hair back off her forehead.

Harry wondered for a moment if it might have been better for her to go to the hospital wing, but then he realized that seeing the cause of her anguish confronted could be just as therapeutic.

“Were you disappointed to hear no news of attacks or strange happenings at Hogwarts?” Harry asked Lucius in a taunting voice. “Decided to get your son to see if he could get things back on track?”

“You can’t prove any of these ridiculous accusations,” Lucius said in a tight voice.

“I don’t have to,” Harry said lightly. “When your old master finds out what you did and how you failed, he’ll do things to you I can’t even imagine.”

“You are a delusional child!” Lucius snarled. “I am not going to stand here and listen to any more of this drivel,” he exclaimed. “I am leaving to make a full report to the Board regarding this insane asylum masquerading as an institution of learning.”

“Mr. Malfoy,” Dumbledore said as the man strode from the Headmaster’s office. Seemingly in spite of himself, Lucius stopped a step short of the door. “Please take your son with you when you leave.”

Draco’s eyes bulged comically and Harry had to concentrate on keeping his face neutral. Ron didn’t bother: he looked as if Christmas had come early this year.

“What is the meaning of this?” Lucius asked in a dangerous tone.

“Mr. Malfoy, your son has been implicated in the attempted murders of two fellow students,” Professor McGonagall reminded him, in a voice as chill as the polar breeze, “Surely you do not think he could possibly be allowed to stay at Hogwarts?”

Harry’s eyes sought out Snape, who for once was not defending his favourite student. Harry supposed being manipulated and lied to had silenced Draco Malfoy’s strongest advocate on the Hogwarts staff.

“This is an outrage!” Lucius snarled.

“Yes, it is,” Arthur agreed, surprising everyone. “He should be facing trial, not expulsion. Shall I call for the Aurors?” he asked the Headmaster in a firm voice.

“You have no proof to back up any of Potter’s web of lies!” Lucius shot back. “Bring this to trial and my solicitor will make a mockery of you. Then I’ll ruin all of you… those who aren’t ruined already, that is.”

“While Mr. Malfoy is correct in that most of this information has been revealed by Mr. Potter, I do have the means to confirm a good deal of it,” the Headmaster explained, his eyes twinkling once again. Harry supposed he’d sifted through Draco’s memories while they were talking, though it was hard to be sure when he’d done it. “It’s unfortunate that this other evidence is not admissible in court, but it’s more than sufficient to settle this matter to my satisfaction. You are both free to go, as long as young Mr. Malfoy vacates the grounds immediately. We will have his school things delivered to your estate.” The old man’s voice dropped in pitch and Harry saw a glimpse of the Dumbledore he’d seen at the Department of Mysteries.

Lucius had evidently seen it as well, for he dropped his hand onto Draco’s shoulder. “Fine, we’re leaving this disgrace of a school. Come, Dobby.” He looked around. “Dobby? Come!

The air beside Draco’s feet twisted and Dobby slipped into view as he carefully folded the invisibility cloak that had covered him. He ran his thin fingers reverently over the shimmering fabric. “Got a cloak,” he said, his tiny voice quavering with disbelief. “Young master dropped it, and Dobby caught it, and Dobby – Dobby is free.”

Lucius stared at the smiling house elf, and then he spun toward Harry. “You’ve lost me my servant, boy!” he roared, reaching forward.

And stopped.

Because an inch from the end of his nose was the end of Harry’s wand, rock steady even with his arm at full extension. Five other wands were out as well, as a handful of children silently threatened to hex him and his son if they made another move. Behind them, Harry imagined the adults were reacting as well, but the immediate threat was already visible.

“You shall not harm Harry Potter!” Dobby said in a firm voice.

“You got that right,” Ron said.

“You’ll meet the same sticky end as your parents one day, Harry Potter,” Lucius whispered, glaring down at the Boy Who Lived. “They were meddlesome fools as well.”

“They died saving people they loved,” Harry replied, his green eyes boring into the Death-Eater’s cold grey orbs. “There are far worse ways to die. You’re probably going to discover one or two.”

“We’ll see who dies well, boy,” Lucius breathed, then spun on his heel and threw open the door.

Draco favoured them with one last dark look as he followed his father. “Be seeing you, Potter,” he sneered.

“Only if your luck runs out, Draco,” Harry said firmly.

The room was oddly quiet for a moment after the two left. Harry found his hand was shaking slightly as he lowered his wand. He jumped when he felt something tug on the leg of his pyjamas. He looked down and saw Dobby, holding the folded cloak.

“Mister Harry Potter, sir? Dobby hears that cloak belonged to Harry Potter’s father. Dobby mustn’t keep it,” the tiny figure said, holding out the cloak.

“Thank you, Dobby. But will this affect your being free? I mean, you won’t have to go back to the Malfoys, right?” Harry asked. He was pretty sure it was the symbolic act that was important, not retaining possession of the item of clothing, but he wanted to be sure.

“Oh no, sir. Dobby is free,” the elf reassured him, holding out the folded cloak again. “But Dobby cannot believe that Harry Potter is so concerned about a lowly house elf.”

“So, er, what do you plan to do now that you are free?” Harry asked, taking the shimmering fabric and tucking it under his arm.

“Dobby doesn’t know, Harry Potter, sir,” Dobby admitted. “Dobby didn’t think he would ever be free, even after Harry Potter said he would find a way. Dobby is very sorry Dobby doubted Harry Potter!” With an anguished look, the elf began wringing one of his floppy ears with both hands.

“Dobby! Stop that!” Harry snapped. “You’re a free elf; you don’t have to punish yourself anymore!”

“Dobby is sorry, Harry Potter, sir, but Dobby should have remembered that Harry Potter is a Great Wizard and Great Wizards do Great Things and even if freeing Dobby isn’t really a Great Thing, Harry Potter said he would do it and Dobby shouldn’t have doubted Harry Potter!” Dobby said, amazing Harry with his lung capacity.

“It’s okay Dobby,” Harry said, kneeling down so he was closer to eye level with the diminutive creature. “I wasn’t sure I’d get the chance, but I’m glad you were paying attention when the time came. Now, what do you like doing?”

“Dobby is a house elf, and house elves like to work. But Dobby isn’t liking being owned, Harry Potter sir. Being owned means maybe having a family like the Dark Bad Wizard Malfoys and not being able to get away!”

“I can understand that,” Harry agreed, “I wouldn’t want to be stuck with them either. Can a free elf work for wages?”

“Dobby doesn’t know, Harry Potter sir. Dobby hasn’t ever known a free elf. Would a wizarding family be willing to pay wages to a free house elf?” Dobby asked in a voice filled with wonder.

“I don’t know,” Harry said slowly, “but I know I would. If you can’t find a proper family to work for, come see me and we’ll work something out.”

“Harry Potter is too kind, sir. Dobby can’t impose on Harry Potter like that-“ Dobby objected, shaking his head violently.

“Yes, you can,” Harry insisted, leaning forward and lowering his voice. “You came to warn me, at great personal risk. Even if I suspected some of it already, you still took the chance. I like having people around that I know I can count on. So will you at least think about it?”

Dobby nodded, too choked up to speak. He bowed very low, then snapped his fingers and disappeared.

Harry straightened up, to find Professor Dumbledore’s eyes on him again, twinkling madly. “That was a very noble thing you did, Harry,” the Headmaster said in an approving tone.

Harry shrugged. “The Chinese have a saying: When you save someone’s life, you are responsible for what they do with it. I didn’t free him from the Malfoys just to see him starve or have someone else take advantage of him.”

“Well said, Mr. Potter,” Professor McGonagall said with a nod. Professor Snape merely looked bored and irritated at the same time.

“Ah, I don’t suppose,” Professor Dumbledore said with a slight smile, “you’d have any idea what happened to poor Professor Lockhart, would you? We found him, quite unconscious, near the hospital wing, along with a reporter and a photographer, neither of whom had permission to be on the grounds.”

Harry swallowed. “Er, I think they were invited by Professor Lockhart, based on some remarks he made. He was taking them to the infirmary to photograph me when we ran into them.”

Molly inhaled sharply, and McGonagall’s scowl was just as fierce.

“And how did he come to be in his current condition?” Dumbledore asked soberly, though Harry swore he saw a hint of a smile under that bloody beard of his.

“Well, he wanted us to abandon searching for Ginny so I could go back to his quarters with him and that reporter, and tell them what a brilliant teacher he is,” Harry replied rolling his eyes. “I said that I didn’t have time to waste on a complete fraud. He Obliviated Ms. Skeeter and her photographer as soon as they heard it. He was about to do the same to us when I threw up a shield.”

Professor McGonagall frowned. “A shield created those marks on the stones? What shield charm did you use?” she asked.

“Um, Protego Maximus,” Harry answered. “I was in a bit of a panic, so I pushed it as hard as I could.”

“Mr. Potter!” Professor McGonagall exclaimed, “How on earth did you learn a NEWT-level defensive spell?”

“I read it in the seventh year Defence Against the Dark Arts textbook,” Harry replied truthfully. In the future, Hermione had insisted the three of them continue training and learning spells to aid them in their hunt for the remaining Horcruxes. “It’s not like those aren’t for sale to anyone with the galleons,” he added. “At the time, I just wanted to see what the most powerful shield I could cast would do. It worked pretty well today, but it reflected Professor Lockhart’s spell right back in his face when he cast it.”

“I see,” Professor Dumbledore murmured. “Well,” he continued in a louder voice, “Ms. Skeeter and her assistant are recovering nicely, though they don’t recall anything that happened since they entered Hogwarts today. Professor Lockhart was a bit harder hit, and he will probably require some time at St. Mungo’s before he recovers.”

“I’m sorry to hear that, sir,” Harry said with a straight face. He thought he heard Ron mutter something quite different beside him.

Dumbledore nodded slowly, the rosy late afternoon light from the window seeming to strike sparks in his silvery beard. “Well, you’ve had a long day Harry. All of you, actually… and you’ve done no small service to the school. I’ll be discussing the disposition of house points with your head of house. In the meantime, Arthur, Molly? Could you please escort these brave students to the fearsome hospital wing. I’ll alert Madam Pomfrey, as I expect she will want to have a few words with them. There will be time for us to talk more, later.”

Harry allowed himself to be hustled from the Headmaster’s office with a sigh of relief that almost set his knees to trembling. As he passed through the door, he darted one last look back and saw Professor Snape, his features shadowed against the light from the window, the reddish glow making his skin appear even more sallow in contrast. His eyes were hooded, but the muscles along his jaw stood out in sharp relief.

OoOoO

Mr. and Mrs. Weasley were still a bit shaky as they led Harry and his friends to the hospital wing. Molly kept straightening Ginny’s hair or brushing at her robes. Harry supposed she was just trying to reassure herself that her daughter was safe. He was a little surprised when she squeezed his shoulder as well.

“Harry, it’s so good to see you back on your feet again,” she said. “We were so worried, first with you hurt, and then Ginny disappearing, and now… we’ve got you both back.” Her voice cracked a bit at the end, and Arthur wrapped an arm around her shoulder.

Harry glanced over at Ron, who was grinning at his parents. He supposed he should have expected this reaction from the elder Weasleys.

Madam Pomfrey, however, reacted exactly as Harry expected when they arrived. Ginny was immediately put to bed, while Harry and the others were checked. Harry, in particular, was closely examined. However, she did not order him back to bed, saying that he needed to continue moving around more than anything. She said he needed to counteract any muscle atrophy that occurred while he was unconscious. After a strict warning to report back if he had any headaches or blurred vision, Harry was pronounced conditionally free to return to the Gryffindor tower, after he changed out of the much-abused hospital pyjamas and into the clothes that had been brought down. Noting the traces of slime and muck on all of their clothing, she also required everyone who’d been down in the Chamber to drink a wide-spectrum cure-all potion, just in case.

Arthur escorted most of them to the Gryffindor common room, while Molly stayed in the infirmary to tuck her daughter in. No sooner did Hermione give the Fat Lady the password than an excited gabble of voices spilled over from behind the portrait. Fred and George were in the front, along with Percy, who appeared both relieved and annoyed at the same time.

“Ginny’s all right,” Arthur reassured his sons. Percy let out a sigh, but Fred and George didn’t appear too surprised, to Harry’s jaundiced eye. The other students appeared relieved as well, and a shout went up when they saw Harry.

In spite of himself, Harry cringed a bit at the cheering that erupted, which made it easier for the twins to pull him aside. Fred explained that with the altered Quidditch schedule, Gryffindor was playing the last match against Ravenclaw in a week.

“And if you can play,” George added, “that changes the complexion of the whole thing!”

“You know, Ginny could replace me at Seeker fairly easily,” Harry admitted.

Fred shook his head. “She stopped attending practices after you were hurt. I think Oliver would have cut her from the reserves if Angelina hadn’t threatened to brain him.”

Harry frowned. She must have already been affected by the Diary, he mused. “Well, I’ll see if I can get back in shape by then,” he replied, “but I can’t promise anything where Madam Pomfrey is concerned.”

George waved that off. “We know you’ll try as hard as you can. More importantly, where did Ginny go?” he asked in an urgent tone.

Fred gave his brother a rather annoyed look, but explained. “We, er, have a means of locating people who are in the castle, Harry. The exact mechanism isn’t that important,” he added quickly, “but we tried to locate Ginny with it, and it said she wasn’t anywhere on the grounds. That meant she was either outside Hogwarts, or, er…”

“Dead,” George added in a tense whisper. “When we saw you moving around, we were going to go and find you, but Percy was being a pain. While we were waiting for him to drop his guard, we saw you all enter a bathroom and then disappear!”

“Ignoring the question of why you lot were all in the ladies privy,” Fred added with a smirk, “We’re rather curious as to what happened. Especially since we saw all of you reappear in that same lav, only with Ginny this time!”

Harry knew they were talking about the Marauder’s Map. Come to think of it, it never occurred to him why they didn’t use it to locate Ginny the first time around, but this explained it. “There’s a secret chamber,” Harry explained in a low voice. “It’s not on any of the maps I’ve seen of Hogwarts Maybe whatever you are using couldn’t reach down there?” He knew for a fact that the Chamber of Secrets wasn’t on the Marauder’s Map, but he didn’t want to explain how he knew about that. Not right at this moment, anyway.

George nodded slowly, but Fred peered at Harry shrewdly. “There’s more you aren’t telling,” he said slowly.

Harry nodded. “This isn’t a good time or place,” he agreed. “How’s your Occlumency?” he asked.

“Getting there,” Fred replied. “Snape’s getting rather hacked off about it too.”

Harry smiled. “Well, when you’re all the way there, you’ll get the full story, yeah?”

George elbowed his brother. “We’re not getting any prezzies before we well and truly earn them, oh brother of mine!”

Ron was entertaining their housemates with a very general explanation of what happened.

“You had dreams about what was happening when you were knocked out?” Seamus Finnegan asked Harry incredulously.

“Sort of,” Harry said. “Not exactly, but it’s kind of hard to describe.”

“C’mon, mate,” Dean Thomas interrupted, nudging Seamus, “Harry’s always had weird dreams. I’m just glad you’re back on your feet!”

“I am too,” Harry agreed, warmed by his dorm-mate’s sincerity.

“Ginny’s all right,” Hermione reassured Lavender, Parvati, and several of the younger Gryffindor girls. “Madam Pomfrey just wanted to keep her overnight to be safe.”

“But who kidnapped her?” Colin demanded, looking uncharacteristically angry.

“Voldemort,” Luna answered, in the offhand manner that occasionally drove her friends barking mad. Of course, the room immediately went deadly silent, except for a few horrified gasps.

Harry reluctantly spoke up. Better to address this now than let the rumour mill run wild. “Someone sent Ginny a book when I was unconscious, claiming I’d ordered it for her. It contained memories from when Voldemort was a student at Hogwarts named Tom Riddle. Over time, those memories were able to take control of her body and then take her somewhere isolated so it could kill her in order to steal her life. She fought it a lot harder than it expected, and she held on long enough for us to get to her and destroy it,” Harry said in a flat voice. Then he took a deep breath and his eyes hardened, “I don’t want this bandied about with the other houses, and I don’t want anyone badgering Ginny about it when Madam Pomfrey releases her. She’s had a rough time of it, and anyone making things harder for her will answer to me.”

“And after that, Fred and I will do things to them that Harry’s too nice to think of,” George added.

“If anyone has any questions about what happened,” Percy said in a loud voice, “they are to direct them to myself or Professor McGonagall. Is that understood?” The scowl on the prefect’s face was uncharacteristically fierce, and Harry silently commended the older boy. Ron stared at Percy, clearly surprised, while Arthur smiled at his often-prickly son.

Eventually, everyone settled down and drifted back to their rooms to get ready for dinner. Percy announced that the curfew would be lifted soon and the Great Hall opened for the evening meal. After a final word with Harry and each of his sons, Arthur left to be with his wife and daughter in the hospital wing.

By the time they filed into the Great Hall for dinner, the nervous energy that had sustained Harry since he awoke in the hospital wing was exhausted. And so was he. Harry found he could barely summon up the energy to chew his steak and kidney pie, and he was actually beginning to doze in his seat between dinner and pudding when Professor Dumbledore announced that Gryffindor had been awarded two hundred points for the incidents that occurred earlier that day – after a good bit had been deducted for being out of bounds, leaving the hospital wing without being formally discharged, and a host of minor offences.

Harry was a little dazed at this news; he hadn’t thought they’d break even, after the punishments had been assessed. The more distant relationship he’d been establishing with this Dumbledore couldn’t have helped, either. But if Harry was shocked by that news, it was nothing compared to what came next.

“I also have the sad duty to report that Professor Snape is leaving Hogwarts to pursue opportunities abroad. While he will be sorely missed, Professor Sinistra will be temporarily serving as head of the Slytherin House, while I myself will attempt to take his place in the Potions lab. Fortunately, as it is only two weeks until exams, that should not unduly affect the OWL and NEWT preparations,” Dumbledore announced.

The Headmaster seemed somewhat taken aback by the reaction to this news. The Slytherin table, of course, seemed somewhat shocked and upset. The other three tables, however, erupted into a standing ovation. Soon students were standing on their seats and cheering at the tops of their lungs. Professor Dumbledore looked around, somewhat bemused, but Harry noticed him darting a quick glance in Professor McGonagall’s direction, who responded with what could only be described as a smug “I told you so” expression.

As the applause continued for several minutes, with no sign of diminishing, the Slytherin students began to mutter and exchange dark looks. Fortunately, Professor Dumbledore raised his hands for silence before things got out of hand. “I’m pleased to note how excited Professor Snape’s students are that he will have a chance to devote his talents to new research opportunities. I’m sure we will hear great things from him in the future,” he concluded with a perfectly straight face. His act seemed to confuse the Slytherins and defuse a potentially nasty situation.

“Where is Draco?” a voice called out from the Slytherin table, one that sounded like Pansy Parkinson.


”I would ask you to direct any further questions about this or any other events to your heads of house,” Dumbledore announced, and with a wave of his hands, the dinner dishes were replaced with a rather elaborate selection of desserts. Harry supposed it was simply good tactics to immediately distract the students with large amounts of sugar, but he could barely pick at his treacle tart.

Ron, on the other hand, appeared to be having the best day of his life. The red-headed boy was exerting a visible effort to keep himself from crowing over the dismissal of his most hated professor. Finally, he could bite his tongue no longer. “I can’t believe they actually sacked him!” he whispered to Harry. “You’re going to be a hero when people find out!”

“Let’s keep that to ourselves,” Harry cautioned him in a similarly low voice. “I’d rather not have the entire Slytherin house out for my blood.”

“Don’t they already hate you? And us?” Ron asked.

Harry shook his head. “The upper forms, not so much, which is a good thing. And with Draco gone, some of the younger ones might mellow as well.”

“I think you’re being too optimistic,” Neville muttered, leaning forward across the remains of his custard.

“It means fewer people I’ll have to kill later on,” Harry said with a sigh. “So I hope not.”

Ron swallowed and made a face. “Sorry, Harry, you’re right.”

Harry gave Ron a crooked smile. “I might not be above a little private gloating among friends though,” he admitted.

Ron chuckled as he took another bite of his pie. He began coughing and choking until Hermione handed him a glass of water. Harry thumped his friend’s back until he swallowed and took a deep breath.

“Thanks, mate.” Ron said hoarsely, “Don’t want to kick it before I can attend my first Snape-less Potions class!”

The rest of them laughed a bit, but Hermione just rolled her eyes. “Honestly, Ron!” she said, but her voice sounded more amused than annoyed.

By the time they returned to their dormitories, Harry could barely stand. He checked the damaged trunk, a let out a heartfelt sigh of relief. The Glock was still where he’d left it, under some of his first year books, wrapped in one of Vernon ’s old socks. After re-packing it, Harry collapsed onto his bed, still half-dressed, and pulled the curtains shut. Sleep overcame him with the drone of conversation still filling his ears.

OoOoO

Ginny hated the hospital at Hogwarts – it wasn’t anything against Madam Pomfrey or her establishment – she had similar feelings about St. Mungo’s, or any other hospital. Throughout the year she’d done her best to avoid it. She’d been there in the Autumn to repair a bad scrape from a sparring mishap with Hermione, and after the Christmas holidays to borrow some emergency supplies when her monthly visitor caught her unawares, but she’d avoided an overnight stay. But after being near death in the Chamber of Secrets, she had an impressive collection of scrapes and bruises, meriting what she dreaded the most: an overnight stay “for observation”, after her mum finished fussing over her. She hated the scratchy sheets on the beds, she hated the potions and she hated the smells of disinfectant and poultices and brewing potions, but most of all she hated the fact that she wasn’t free to go until Madam Pomfrey released her. She’d tried to sneak out in the first light of morning, but the doors wouldn’t open, and her wand was presumably locked up somewhere else for safe keeping. She briefly considered picking the locks, since Fred and George had taught her how while Harry was at St. Mungo’s the previous summer, but she didn’t have anything shaped remotely like a lock pick, and nothing in the hospital wing looked promising. So she waited, and fumed, and fidgeted, and fell into a fitful sleep as she leaned back on her bed, waiting for Madam Pomfrey to perform her Saturday morning rounds.

“Good morning, Miss Weasley, how are we feeling today?” Madam Pomfrey asked, nodding her head in a way that made the tip of her Medi-witch’s cap jiggle.

“I don’t know how we are feeling, but I’m feeling ready to get out of here,” Ginny replied, trying to put on a pleasant smile.  She wasn’t sure if she was succeeding or not.

“Well, we’ll see,” Madam Pomfrey replied noncommittally, humming under her breath as she ran a number of tests, stopping every so often to write some notes into a mercifully thin medical file.  When she was done, she nodded her head and walked away with said file, returning in a trice with a basket containing fresh clothes – fetched by one of the Prefects, no doubt.  Lying on top of the small pile of clothes was her wand.  “You’re free to go, Miss Weasley.  Do try to stay out of here between now and the end-of-term feast, hmm?” she said, breaking into a smile at last.

“Yes, Madam Pomfrey,” Ginny replied, stripping off her pyjamas, never so glad in her life to see her camisole and pants.  Supposing that the toothbrush on the nightstand was intended for her use, she finished her morning ablutions, promising her hair a good brushing when she got back to her room, but deciding that that level of hygiene would wait. 

She needed to find Harry.

Harry, however, was not to be found.  Although she thought she knew the most likely places (Harry was, after all, a creature of habit) she kept drawing a blank. For once, she wished it was not a Saturday, because she at least knew his class timetable. She stayed in the Great Hall long enough to chew through a hastily assembled bacon, egg and tomato sandwich on toast, while she formulated her search.  Without looking desperate, she asked everyone she thought might have a clue if they’d seen her rescuer, but those students who weren’t shying away from her confessed that they, too, hadn’t seen Harry that morning.  She considered going back to her room for a good cry, more out of frustration than anything else, when she ran into Luna.

“You’re looking for Harry, aren’t you?” Luna asked, in a rather direct manner.

“Do you know where he is?” Ginny asked eagerly.

Luna looked thoughtful for a moment and then shook her head.  “No, but if I was Harry, I’d go somewhere where I thought no-one would find me while I wondered whether or not any of my friends still liked me,” she said, looking out the window at nothing at all.

“But we all said that it didn’t make a difference, now that we knew the truth!” Ginny exclaimed.

“Maybe he wants to hear it again, personally,” Luna replied.  “That, or perhaps he accidentally inhaled a Bibbering Gimble-chock. It produces much the same behaviour according to my dad – he wrote an article about it last year in the double-length August edition.”

“So where would he be?” Ginny asked, not wanting to get into any discussions involving animals mentioned in the Quibbler.

“Oh, the Owlery’s a good place,” Luna suggested.

“Been there.”

“Then that leaves the Quidditch pitch, or the bridge overlooking the lake,” Luna said conclusively.

“Thanks, Luna, you’re a life-saver,” Ginny gushed, running towards the door closest to the pitch.

OoOoO

Harry was mildly surprised that he awoke with no nightmares. He was shocked when he stuck his head out of the bed-curtains and saw the sun already lightening the sky beyond his window. He tried to process the idea of getting nearly twelve hours of uninterrupted sleep while he composed his to-do list for the day. If yesterday was a Friday, then this had to be Saturday, right?

And then the events of the previous day caught up with him and his eyes snapped open. His stomach clenched at the thought of Ginny in the Chamber of Secrets again, despite his best efforts to prevent it. Was Fate that adamant about having her way? He and Ron didn’t use Polyjuice to infiltrate the Slytherins, so instead Draco used it to infiltrate Gryffindor. Was that just a coincidence as well? Was there any such thing as a coincidence anymore?

Harry ground his teeth in frustration. Then he remembered what happened immediately afterward. He’d actually told them… everything. And they’d understood – or at least said they did – and forgiven him. He was still having trouble getting his mind around that. The one he expected to be the angriest was Ginny, but she’d been the first to reassure him. He still had a mild bruise from where her hands had been when she squeezed him.

But she didn’t really know, did she? Harry asked himself. He levered himself off the bed, his sore muscles protesting, and lurched toward the showers. The hot water soothed his muscles, but not his doubts. After drying off, he looked out the window at the morning sky and dressed for flying.

Skipping breakfast, Harry slipped out of the castle with no one the wiser, and was soon back in the air – one of the few places he really felt comfortable anymore. His stay in the hospital wing had indeed left him rusty, so he began slowly, gently circling the pitch. After a while, he began to work the kinks out and began to fly a bit less conservatively. In seemingly no time, he was tearing up and down the pitch, diving and rolling, and engaged in aerobatics designed to give a bat indigestion.

Still, as good as the flying made him feel physically, emotionally he wasn’t getting any better. He’d avoided answering Ginny’s questions, the ones she couldn’t directly ask in front of the others. It was fairly despicable of him to use his friends, and Ginny’s residual shyness, to keep her from putting him on the spot. His only defence was that he didn’t realize what he was doing at the time, but now he did. She deserved to know. Harry couldn’t face himself in the mirror if he continued to conceal things, no matter how embarrassing or painful.

Harry was resolved to return to the castle and face the music, when he noticed a lone figure sitting on the stands. It was rather small, but topped with a mane of fiery red hair that Harry could pick out of a crowd of thousands. Instead of landing on the pitch, he descended toward the stands, landing next to Ginny. He dismounted and sat down a few feet away, holding his broom carefully in his lap.

“Nice weather for flying,” she said in a slightly strained voice.

“Yeah,” Harry nodded. “The match against Ravenclaw is in a week. I’m not sure if I can be ready in time.”

“Playing against Cho Chang?” she asked.

“I think so,” Harry said, nodding. “I need to be at my best against her; she’s a pretty good flyer.”

“Very pretty in general,” Ginny observed coolly.

Harry glanced at her out of the corner of his eye as he nodded agreement. Her eyebrows twitched a little – perhaps because she thought Harry was still looking out at the pitch. “She and Cedric make a good couple,” he added.

Ginny frowned at Harry and he turned in his seat so he was facing her. “If you saw anything after the DA meeting, she gave me a peck on the cheek because of what I said to Cedric when everyone was accusing Hufflepuff.”

The redheaded girl blushed lightly as she stared down at her hands. “Then you two never…?”

“In the future?” Harry asked, but continued without waiting for the answer. “Yeah, we went out once. It was a complete disaster,” he added with a grimace.

Ginny let out the giggle she’d failed to completely swallow. “I’m sorry,” she said quickly. “It’s just, that look on your face…”

Harry shrugged. “I’ll admit it’s a bit funnier in hind-sight.” He tried to remain blasé, but he knew what was coming next. She’d ask if they ever had a relationship, he’d tell the truth, and she’d hopefully just tell him he was more of a brother to her now. If she felt betrayed by his actions, she’d be hurt and angry. Harry wasn’t sure if either of them could stand being together at The Burrow if that happened.

He clenched his hands on his broomstick to keep them from shaking.

“I didn’t see you in the Great Hall at breakfast,” she said, suddenly changing the subject, to Harry’s vast relief.

“I didn’t much feel like eating,” Harry admitted.

“Well,” Ginny said, bouncing to her feet, “I didn’t have much to eat either, and they should be starting lunch soon. If you get any thinner, Mum won’t let me and Ron hear the end of it when we go home for the holidays.”

“All right,” Harry agreed. It still made him smile when Ginny fussed at him like that. In at least one way, she was truly her mother’s daughter.

They began walking back to the castle, side by side, Harry’s Nimbus balanced on his shoulder. He enjoyed the warm sunshine and the comfortable silence when the latter was broken by Ginny’s voice.

“Harry?” she asked, her voice little more than a whisper. She was looking down at the grass as they walked.

“Yeah?” he answered. It was easier, he supposed, if they weren’t looking at each other.

“We were more than friends, weren’t we? In the future, that is.” She asked, her voice catching a little at the end.

“Yeah,” he answered, steeling himself for her reaction.

She was silent for a maddening length of time. “Good,” she said quietly.

The two of them, witch and wizard, walked back to the castle together.  Maybe Fate wasn’t such a bitch after all.

Author’s Notes:

Well, that is the climax for year two. A lot of loose ends are wrapped up, and the original timeline is, shall we say, toast?

There will be another chapter to wrap up Harry’s second year. (You didn’t think I’d skip the Quidditch Championship, did you?). I was originally planning to do it all in 27, but this is already the longest chapter in Harry Potter and the Nightmares of Futures Past.

The ride will continue in Year 3: Harry Potter and the Dementors of Azkaban. (Yes, this will be the first year to have a different title.)

Before we go, I’d like to thank my Betas, Runsamok, Kokopelli, the illustrious Kokopelli (beta correction) and Malkin. Without them, this would be messier, and no doubt read like it was written by one of those nasty Yanks. =)

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Author Notes:

Several things you've been waiting for finally come to pass in the longest chapter written for this story to date. Hope it was worth the wait!

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