Harry nodded. He certainly couldn't think of any better plan.
Darkness was falling as they walked down to Lockhart's office. There seemed to be a lot of activity going on inside, but when Harry knocked there was a sudden silence. "Oh … Mr Potter … Mr Weasley," said the Professor, opening the door a crack. "I'm rather busy at the moment. If you would be quick …"
"Professor, we've got some information for you," said Harry. "We think it'll help you."
The bit of Lockhart's face that they could see looked interested. "Well … all right." He opened the door, and as they entered they could see that his office had been almost completely stripped.
"Are you going somewhere?" said Harry.
"Er, urgent call … the wizards in the Andes have been begging me to go and help them round up rogue Peruvian Vipertooths for ages …"
"What about my sister?" said Ron jerkily.
"You're the Defence Against the Dark Arts teacher!" said Harry. "You can't go now!"
Lockhart looked slightly shamefaced for a moment. "Well, bad time, I know, but I must say … when I took the job … expected some sort of cooperation from the other staff … can't do everything by myself, you know …"
"You mean you're running away?" said Harry disbelievingly. "After all that stuff you did in your books?"
"NO!" yelled Lockhart, turning to them with a flush of anger on his face that was obviously genuine. "But I don't know where the Chamber of Secrets is. Do use your common sense. My books wouldn't have sold half as well if I hadn't actually done all those things. No-one wants to read about failures, do they? So I've got to go. I can't afford to have people think that I tried to find the Chamber and couldn't, can I? I'd never sell another book!"
Harry and Ron stared at him, dumbfounded. "You're in luck," said Harry eventually. "We think we know where it is. And what's inside it."
"You do?" Lockhart stopped his packing and looked at Harry the way he'd once done in Diagon Alley, as if Harry had been a large sack of Galleons – one with a Gringotts paying-in slip attached, already filled out with Lockhart's vault number. "Tell me!"
"So you lads think it's a Basilisk that Petrified those poor people?" said Lockhart with interest as they explained their reasoning on the way to Moaning Myrtle's bathroom. "Excellent! You know something, boys, in all my travels I've never actually encountered one of those? I can see it now – 'Battles with Basilisks', a nice bright green cover with a snake motif and a big photo of me on the front, looking handsome and dashing of course …"
Ron looked nauseated. Harry wasn't so worried about the display of ego, more about whether their Professor was all mouth and no wand. He hadn't forgotten the Skele-Gro.
Lockhart strode in first, and beamed roguishly at the ghost sitting on the cistern of the end toilet. "Well, well, if it isn't the charming Miss Myrtle!" he said before Harry could open his mouth. His voice dropped as if to invite confidences. "We were just having a little discussion among ourselves, my dear, and were wondering how it was that you died. I don't suppose you'd care to tell us, would you?"
Myrtle's whole aspect changed at once. She actually fluttered her ghostly eyelashes as Lockhart winked at her, and launched into a breathless explanation what had happened to her fifty years before – well, it would have to be breathless, Harry supposed, although he didn't think it would be a good idea to say that and risk setting her off again.
"Over here, you say?" Lockhart was examining the sink in front of Myrtle's toilet. She nodded, gazing raptly at him, and giving the impression that her heart would have been fluttering if she'd still had one – although Harry didn't think it would be a good idea to say that either. "Hmm, there's a little snake scratched on the tap. I wonder …" He tried a series of unlocking and opening spells, none of which had any discernible effect.
"Harry," said Ron suddenly, "say something. Something in Parseltongue."
Lockhart looked up, surprised. "Good idea, Mr Weasley! Go on then, Harry."
Harry himself wasn't at all surprised when, after a little experimentation, a hissing sound escaped his lips; he jumped back as the sink disappeared and a large pipe was exposed. He looked up and turned to the others. "Now what?"
"I'm going down there," said Lockhart, sliding his legs into the pipe.
"Me too," said Ron and Harry simultaneously. There was a pause.
"Well, I hardly seem to need you," said Lockhart, with a kindly smile. Ron and Harry both raised their wands, looking mutinous. "Boys, boys, what good will it do?"
"You might need someone who can speak Parseltongue," Harry told him firmly. They couldn't not go, not if there was even the slimmest chance that Ginny might be alive. Lockhart shook his head.
"I really don't think –" he started to say, but Ron gave him a push, and he slid out of sight.
Harry followed quickly. When he arrived at the bottom, Lockhart was getting to his feet a little way away, looking rather annoyed. Harry stood aside as Ron came whizzing out of the pipe too.
"You shouldn't have done that," said Lockhart quietly. "I'm an Order of Merlin, Third Class and a Honorary Member of the Dark Force Defence League. I've had years of experience. You boys haven't. I don't want to get you killed down here."
"Why, would it be bad for sales?" snarled Ron. A guilty look flashed quickly across Lockhart's face before he replaced it with a brilliant smile. "Anyway, you haven't been so great this year, have you? A bunch of pixies kicked your arse!"
"Only because I let them!" It was difficult to tell in the wandlight, but the older wizard looked deeply stung by this. "It was a trap, don't you see?"
"Not really," said Harry sceptically. He hesitated; now that he thought about it, they really should have discussed Lockhart's likely performance before they got into the Chamber of Secrets. Still, it was too late to worry about that now, especially as there might be a Basilisk roaming about. He kept his ears pricked for the slightest hint of anything that sounded slithery. "Look, this is Ron's sister who's in danger. We're not saying we don't trust you to get her out on your own or anything …"
"Yeah, we are," said Ron.
"… well, OK, fair point. Professor, you haven't exactly done anything in class to give us confidence, have you?"
"Classes can be misleading," said Lockhart delicately. "Look … I probably shouldn't tell you this, but … well, a little friend dropped in to see me this summer because he'd overheard a plot being hatched. He seemed a bit taken with you, Harry, actually. Obviously, he knew my exceptional reputation, so naturally he came to me and practically begged me to help you."
"What 'little friend'?" said Ron suspiciously. "And what did he say?"
"Oh, something like 'Bobby knows Gilderoy Lockhart is great wizard and is only one who can help Harry Potter if he goes to school despite everything Bobby can do to stop him'. You know how the little fellows talk. Well, I couldn't turn down a challenge like that, could I? After all, when you've reached my status in the publishing world, it's hard to top your previous work and keep yourself at the head of the sales charts! You want fame, Harry, you have to be prepared for a long, hard slog. But saving the Boy-Who-Lived from a nefarious plot – well, what better opportunity could a man ask for?"
"Wait a minute, Bobby?" said Harry, incredulous. He decided to let the rest of this speech pass for the moment. "Do you mean Dobby, the house-elf?"
"Oh yes, that was the little fellow's name."
"Right." For some reason, Harry felt an odd pang of annoyance at the idea that Dobby had thought Lockhart more capable of protecting Harry than Harry was himself. "But this year, you've been, well, erm, …"
"Appallingly bad?" Lockhart smiled toothily. "You see, Harry, the only way I could think of to get myself on the spot for a year was to take on the Defence job. But of course that created its own problem – if there was a plot afoot, the presence in the school of a legendary battler of the Dark Forces such as myself would naturally be inclined to make the villain more circumspect, wouldn't it? I thought the best thing to do would be to try to lull them into a false sense of security, lure them out into the open. So I did everything I possibly could to give people the impression that I was really a cowardly, incompetent fool!"
"Well, it worked," Ron muttered.
"You didn't solve the problem of the Chamber though, did you?" said Harry angrily. "While you were going around pretending to be useless, our best friend was Petrified!"
"Well, you boys didn't exactly share your information with anyone, did you?" said Lockhart tartly. Then his voice softened. "But I can see how much Miss Granger means to you two, so I won't leave now I can help. Not while one of my fans needs me!"
Harry decided to ignore the uncomfortable first part of Lockhart's reply, although he could tell that Ron was slightly mollified by his declaration of support for Hermione. "So 'lessons can be misleading,' can they? How much of that stuff in your books was actually true?"
"All of it!" Lockhart looked genuinely shocked. "Everything I write about myself is actually true. That's why my works are such ideal Defence Against the Dark Arts textbooks! What better instruction could a class hope for than the collected experiences of someone who's actually been there, done it, and bought the robes?"
Harry didn't know whether to believe him or not. "And all that other stuff you kept coming out with, that no-one wanted to listen to? Getting kelpies out of a well? Nursing a Whomping Willow? Being invited to play Seeker for England? Was that true too?"
Lockhart smiled. "Ah well, I always say that anything you don't commit to print should be taken with a grain of salt, Harry. I had to keep up my chosen role this year, after all." He grinned roguishly; Harry gritted his teeth. "Actually, I was a star Chaser, not a Seeker. The youngest in my House in a century, I believe. But – and I know this will seem unbelievable to you right now – by the time it came to my N.E.W.T. year I'd lost interest in playing, because I knew the world needed me to battle against the Dark Forces!"
"Yeah, and talking about them, what about the Duelling Club?" said Ron. "Snape wiped the floor with you!"
Lockhart smiled. "As I told you all, it was very obvious what he was about to do, and had it been a real duel I would never have been disarmed that easily. You'll have to trust me, boys."
Harry glanced sideways at Ron, who shrugged. Then again, did they really have a choice? "Okay, Professor. Let's go."
"Bet he's glad you came along now," said Ron in a low but nervous voice as Lockhart strode into the Chamber. "Wouldn't even have got past the door without you hissing at it."
"Quiet, boys." Lockhart's voice was equally low, and he sounded far more serious than Harry had ever heard him sound before. He Conjured mirrors and silently handed one to each of them.
They followed him slowly past the towering stone serpentine columns, trying to look away at the merest suggestion of a movement in their peripheral vision or merest hint of a noise, but the only real sound was their own echoing footsteps. Finally, as they came to the end of the Chamber they could see a giant stone statue that Harry assumed had to be of Salazar Slytherin – but the more interesting sight was the small figure in Hogwarts robes lying motionless between its feet.
"Ginny!" cried Ron, dashing forward heedlessly to cradle his sister's head. "Don't be dead! Please don't be dead!"
Harry followed him, with Lockhart approaching more slowly, using his mirror to glance around them. "Ginny, please wake up," muttered Harry. Her face was still, and as white as marble. Ron's was more animated, but the colour was much the same.
"She won't wake," said a soft voice from behind them.
They spun round, Lockhart swiftly raising his wand. "Who are you?" he asked. "And what do you mean?"
The oddly blurred figure leaning against the pillar spoke again. "She's still alive. But only just."
Harry could hear Ron's quiet sigh of relief from behind him, but as he stared at the speaker something else caught his attention. "Hang on, I know you," he said slowly. He was almost sure it was Tom Riddle, and when he looked down, there sure enough was the diary lying next to Ginny. Its presence here didn't make sense, but then neither did hers. "You were Head Boy here fifty years ago – you thought Hagrid had opened the Chamber! Are you a ghost?"
"A memory. Preserved in a diary for fifty years."
"Like a Pensieve?" said Lockhart with interest. "Ingenious! Very pleased to meet you, young man. Gilderoy Lockhart, Order of Merlin, Third Class, Honorary Member of the Dark Force Defence League and five-times winner of Witch Weekly's Most-Charming-Smile Award, at your service! Oh, and my two companions on this little adventure, Mr Harry Potter and Mr Ronald Weasley."
Tom Riddle's eyes, which had opened wide in disbelief as Lockhart made his speech, seemed to flash red for a moment. "I've waited a long time for this," he said hungrily. "For the chance to see you. To speak to you …"
"Well of course you have, my dear chap!" said Lockhart breezily, beaming at Riddle. "Only too pleased to help. When we've got young Miss Weasley out of here, I'll even sign that diary of yours!"
Riddle stared at him with utter incredulity. "Not you – Harry Potter!"
Lockhart looked disappointed for a moment, but quickly managed to hitch the brilliant smile onto his face again. "Ah well, yes, Mr Potter is an up-and-coming star, I do agree. One of these days he may even rank with me as a hero!" Harry would have found the strange look that passed over Riddle's face at this amusing under other circumstances, but at the moment they did have more pressing matters to deal with.
"Look, can we just rescue Ginny and get the hell out of here before the Basilisk comes back?" said Ron, who had evidently been thinking along the same lines.
"It won't come until it's called," said Riddle, whose air of smiling calm was beginning to grate on Harry. There was something very funny going on here.
"How do you know?" he asked. "How did Ginny get like this anyway?"
Riddle smiled again. Harry stared at him as he explained the nature of the Basilisk's attacks; whatever he'd expected to find in the Chamber, an evil diary entity with an unhealthy interest in what happened when Voldemort tried to kill him certainly hadn't been it. Ron looked alternately sickened and incensed as Riddle described what had been happening to Ginny all year. "So, Harry," he finished. "How did you escape with nothing but a scar, while Lord Voldemort's powers were destroyed?"
"Why do you care?" asked Ron rudely. "Lord … You-Know-Who was after your time!"
Lockhart was studying Riddle with narrowed eyes. "I'm not sure he was, Mr Weasley … what did you say your name was again?"
Riddle smiled in a way Harry didn't like the look of at all. "Didn't I tell you? This is it." He produced a wand and began to wave it, writing the name TOM MARVOLO RIDDLE in the air in shimmering letters.
"That's Ginny's wand!" cried Ron. "You …"
Harry was sure Mrs Weasley would not have approved of the name her son called Riddle. Or then again, under the circumstances she might have echoed it, considering what the diary had done to her daughter. "Yes, I knew that was your name already," he spat. "You told me when I wrote back to you, remember? So what?"
"Don't you see, boys?" said Lockhart, sounding quietly excited. "Rearrange the letters …"
Harry turned to Ron, who looked every bit as baffled as he was. "Are you any good at anagrams?"
Ron shook his head helplessly. "We leave that sort of thing to Hermione, don't we?"
"Allow me!" cried Lockhart. Harry winced as he waved his wand, but all that happened was that the letters realigned themselves. It was the resultant message I AM LORD VOLDEMORT that actually left him feeling numb with shock. He glanced at Ron, who looked terrified, although strangely not quite as much as when they'd been trapped by the spiders.
Riddle smiled again. "Very good, Mr … oh, whatever your name is. Yes, I fashioned myself a new name …"
The boy who had grown up to become the most evil wizard in the world went off into a long spiel about his parentage, but Harry was only half listening. Lockhart, however, seemed to be absolutely enthralled. "Fascinating!" he said when Riddle finally ran down. "You don't know how much I've wanted to meet you, Mr Riddle."
"To meet me?" Riddle sounded scornfully disbelieving.
"Oh yes." The brilliant smile was back. "It's always been a source of great regret to me that your rise and fall occurred before I had a chance to prove myself against you. I always longed for the chance to take you on. It would be my finest hour!"
"I see," said Riddle, with an equally wide but far less pleasant smile. "Then let us match the powers of Lord Voldemort, heir of Salazar Slytherin, against the ever so famous … Goldenboy Lackhart, was it?" He suddenly jerked Ginny's wand up with a snarled "Expelliarmus!"
Harry watched in horror as both his and Ron's wands flew from their hands and disappeared into the darkness; he was immensely relieved to see that Lockhart had somehow managed to block the unfriendly spell and hold on to his.
"That's how you do it boys, sorry I couldn't teach you before!" he cried. "And now …"
He shot a bolt of red light at what Harry suddenly realised was an increasingly solid-looking Riddle, who deflected it easily and immediately sent back a similar bolt in Lockhart's direction with a flick of his wrist. Harry's heart leapt into his mouth, but Lockhart also casually deflected the spell aimed at him and returned to the attack.
"You two, take Miss Weasley and go!" he yelled, ducking as another bolt of red light passed him by and firing off a curse that made Riddle step back even as he blocked it.
They didn't need to be told twice, and started trying to move Ginny's dead weight (please no, not literally thought Harry) away from the fight towards the entrance – a task that unfortunately turned out to be far from easy, because they had to duck every few seconds as misaimed or rebounding spells flew in their direction.
Lockhart and Riddle were circling each other, wands flashing like swords as they duelled, sparks flashing from the tips. Harry had never seen anything like it. They appeared to have moved on to more exotic and spectacular spells now, ones that Harry didn't recognise (but thought he would really have to learn some day, always assuming they made it out of here alive, of course). He kept his head down as the combatants threw fireballs and blasting spells and jets of silvery light at each other, the noise of the resultant explosions echoing painfully.
"Careful, Professor!" yelled Harry as a randomly deflected spell blew another great chunk out of the wall, this time too close for comfort. "You could bring the whole Chamber down on top of our heads!"
"Not to worry, Harry, I know what I'm doing!" cried Lockhart. He ducked a beam of green light and leapt up with the odd-sounding cry of "Appleby Forever!" A volley of long and lethal-looking silver arrows appeared from thin air and hurtled towards Riddle, who was temporarily unable to dodge as he was backed up against a jagged stone spike that was all that was left of a pillar. He was forced to levitate a piece of rock from the floor to form a makeshift shield.
"It seems you are a worthy opponent, Mr Lockhart," he spat, sounding somewhat breathless.
"We do seem to have a bit of a stalemate, don't we?" Lockhart seemed equally glad of the rest, but still managed to sound irritatingly jaunty.
"Perhaps we can break it," snarled Riddle. He began to hiss loudly.
"What's he saying, Harry?" asked Ron in trepidation.
With a sinking feeling, Harry realised he could understand Riddle perfectly well. He rather wished he couldn't. "Professor, watch out!" he called urgently. "He's summoning Slytherin's Basilisk!"
Riddle was smiling again as Lockhart hesitated. The sixteen-year-old future Dark Lord moved gracefully towards the rear of the Chamber. "Yes, the pet of the greatest of the Hogwarts Four comes only to the call of he who will become the greatest sorcerer in the world!"
"You're not," snapped Harry.
"Not what?" Riddle snapped back.
"Not the greatest sorcerer in the world."
"Yeah, sorry mate, but Dumbledore is," added Ron, who had scrambled to his feet and was standing protectively over Ginny.
An odd expression flashed across Lockhart's face – as if he would rather have liked to disagree, but couldn't, in all honesty, find a plausible way of doing so. "The boys have it right, Mr Riddle. But I think we can deal with you and your little snake without needing his help."
Riddle's lip curled. "My little snake? You think so? Well, we'll see what you make of it, then." High above them, Slytherin's mouth slid open.
"Cover your eyes, boys!" cried Lockhart urgently. "Get out of the way! Don't let it even scratch you with its teeth! Never mind Miss Weasley for now, she's practically Petrified already!" He stood in the middle of the floor, closed his eyes, and pointed his wand in the general direction of the base of the statue. Riddle's mocking laughter was so loud it echoed off the walls of the chamber
Harry grabbed Ron's arm and began to drag him away towards the wall, where, after one tortured look at his sister, he followed. Both of them had their eyes screwed tight shut, and it wasn't until Harry bumped painfully into the wall that he realised where they were. He chanced a brief glance up and winced; they were against the jagged spear of rock where Riddle had been backed up.
Something huge hit the stone floor of the Chamber, but before Harry even had time to picture what was happening, he heard Lockhart cry "Conjunctivo!"
There was a loud explosive spitting sound. Harry and Ron couldn't help but look; the Basilisk was thrashing around in pain, unable to focus its gaze. Lockhart took advantage of the temporary incapacitation of his serpentine opponent to open his eyes, take a more careful aim, and cry "Incendio!" Both boys winced as a jet of flame leapt from his wand towards the giant snake's bulbous yellow eyes; it reeled and thrashed in agony as they burnt away.
Riddle had an extremely ugly look on his face now. "Expelliarmus!" he cried, and this time, Lockhart's wand went flying, breaking the flame spell. Harry's heart rose into his mouth as the Basilisk turned towards them, but there were only charred sockets where its eyes had been.
Lockhart cast the briefest of glances in Harry's direction, looking truly worried for the first time. Riddle, however, was now smiling again.
"Let's see how much of a hero you are without a wand," he whispered. The Basilisk was moving blindly towards Lockhart, who backed away slowly, drawing it past Harry and Ron towards the entrance. Riddle glanced at the boys, grinned, and then shouted in Parseltongue, "No! Leave the man! The boys are behind you! You can still smell them! Kill them!" The Basilisk turned, its head swaying as it tried to make sense of its conflicting instructions. Then it seemed to catch their scent and twisted its body towards them.
Riddle bowed mockingly at them, which was a mistake, as Lockhart took advantage of his momentary distraction to pick up a stone from the floor and throw it hard at him. It struck the wrist of his wand arm, jerked it back, and sent the wand skittering away into the darkness.
"That Lockhart's something, isn't he?" said Ron with grudging admiration. Unfortunately, in the time needed to disarm Riddle, the Basilisk had located them. Its tail swatted Lockhart aside, sending him flying, and it began to head towards them. Ron gulped. "Harry, what do we do?"
Harry stared blankly for a moment and then it dawned on him. "It can't see us … listen, jump one way and I'll jump the other when I say now –"
The Basilisk was hurtling towards them. Harry waited for as long as he dared and then yelled "NOW!"
He leapt out of the snake's way at the last moment, and saw Ron spring in the opposite direction just as the Basilisk, unable to see where it was going, snapped at them – but all it managed to achieve was to headbutt the jagged spike on the wall at top speed and close its jaws around it, a dual impact that knocked several fangs out of its mouth and left it swaying and hissing in agony, as it tried to extricate itself from the large, sharp piece of rock now sticking halfway down its throat.
As Harry and Ron scrambled to get away from its thrashing coils, Lockhart raced towards them, stooping to pick something from the floor. It wasn't until he reached the wall that Harry realised what it was – one of the arrows he had fired at Riddle. Lockhart took a deep breath, then leapt onto the creature's back, and with all his strength drove the arrow through the top of its head. A shudder went down the length of its body; it fell twitching to the floor, then finally lay still.
Harry and Ron cheered; they couldn't help it.
Lockhart beamed and bowed to them, then moved quickly towards his wand, which was lying on floor some distance away. Unfortunately, as he bent down to pick it up, there was a rasp from the other side of the Chamber.
"Get away, Lockhart!"
They all looked up; Riddle had already found a wand and was pointing it at them. Harry's stomach plummeted as he realised that even though they'd disposed of the Basilisk, there was still an extremely good chance that they weren't going to survive this.
"Get away from that. I said, get away!" He pointed his wand at the one on the floor and cried "Abigo! … ARGH!"
The wand exploded with the force of a small bomb. Harry thanked his lucky stars that the Chamber they were standing in had such a high ceiling, because if it hadn't most of it would probably have come down on their heads. Even so, the blast shook the floor hard enough to throw them all off their feet, and scatter the mounds of loose stonework already lying there. Riddle himself was blasted backwards into the darkness and a loud thump and a cry of pain suggested that he'd hit the wall with some force.
"Blimey, that was my wand he picked up!" said Ron weakly, standing and picking his way towards Ginny, who was still lying where they'd been forced to leave her, unmoving.
"Good, good, but where did my wand go?" said Lockhart, frantically searching through the rubble on the floor. "It was knocked away from me in the explosion … oh no …"
"Now what?" said Harry. He looked up. Riddle was already stirring, and moving gingerly across the floor, apparently having spotted one of the other wands nearby.
"Can't we do anything with that, Professor?" said Ron suddenly. He pointed at something on the floor by the opposite wall of the Chamber. "Won't it be … I don't know, holding the memory or something?"
"The diary! Brilliant!" Lockhart raced over and grabbed it, muttering to himself all the while. "Yes, destroy the memory focus, that should do it … maybe just Obliviate would work? Never was much good at that one, dammit …"
Harry had a sudden blinding flash of inspiration. "Professor, to me!" he yelled. Lockhart glanced at him as Riddle stood up, wand in hand and an extremely vicious look on his face. He raised the wand and pointed it at Lockhart.
Not for nothing, though, had Gilderoy been the youngest Chaser for his House in a century. As a streak of green light hurtled towards him from Riddle's wand, in one sudden movement he twisted away from it as if dodging a Bludger, and simultaneously threw the diary clear across the Chamber towards Harry. Harry in his turn caught Lockhart's inch-perfect pass in one hand as if it had been a Snitch, then with the other immediately seized one of the detached Basilisk fangs lying on the floor next to him and plunged it straight into the heart of the book.
All three of them covered their ears at the resulting scream, which seemed to go on for a very long time until Riddle finally vanished.
The resulting silence as they all looked at each other was broken by a faint moan from Ginny. Ron hurried over to help her up, and Lockhart, seeming to snap out of a reverie, smiled brilliantly at Harry and walked over to pick up the wand that Riddle had dropped, summoning the remaining wands to him with a flick of his wrist. "Do you know what we've achieved here, Harry?" he said quietly, surveying the scene.
"What?" The only achievement Harry was worried about at that precise moment was staying on his feet. His knees suddenly felt weak, and he was having great difficulty stopping himself from trembling violently.
"We've created the material for a publishing phenomenon! I know, I know, it would take a lot to beat the time when I was the only person ever to occupy the top three slots in the Daily Prophet best sellers list for six months straight, but this could do it, you know! It's got mystery! It's got intrigue! It's got suspense! It's got a saleable villain! It's perfect …"
Harry rolled his eyes and let him ramble on while he went to help Ron, who shrugged as Ginny wept silent tears. "She won't talk to me, Harry," he mouthed helplessly.
"Ginny, don't cry, it's all right now," said Harry pleadingly, but the sound of his voice just sent her into a fresh round of tears that almost drowned out the sound of Lockhart's cheery publishing speculations. He raised his voice. "Professor! What about Ginny?"
That brought Lockhart up short. He glanced at her, apparently realising for the first time that she was awake, and his face softened. "Come on, Miss Weasley," he said, crouching down next to her, and tilting her head up to treat her to the brilliant smile and the wink. "You'll be fine now, I've rescued you!" His face fell when this had absolutely no effect on her tears, and he stood up again with a very uncomfortable look.
"Have you thought how we're going to get out of here?" asked Harry quietly, as Ron awkwardly tried to comfort Ginny.
"Good point, Harry." Lockhart looked around with a frown on his face. "As I said, I was hoping for some cooperation from the other staff, but now Dumbledore's gone, well …"
"I'll bet he's not as gone as you think!" said Harry optimistically.
He supposed, on later reflection, that he really shouldn't have been so surprised by the phoenix that appeared in a flash of flame when he said that.
Lockhart brightened immediately. "Excellent! Just what we needed." He ruffled Fawkes' feathers, which drew an irritated look from the phoenix. "Pity he didn't turn up before … ah well, though, I don't suppose he'd have been much use in a battle!"
As Fawkes carried them back up the pipe, Ron looked as if he was suffering some painful internal struggle, and as they escorted a still-miserable Ginny out of Myrtle's bathroom he burst out, "Can I have your autograph?"
Harry groaned to himself, but let it pass. He rather expected that Lockhart would dominate the conversation when they told Dumbledore everything, and also that he'd keep mightily quiet about his and Ron's part in their dangerous adventure.
He wasn't wrong.
"How dare he!"
Harry looked up from the table outside Florean Fortescue's, where he and Ron had been completing the last of their holiday homework – while Hermione rapidly read a book whose bright green cover had a snake motif and a big photo of Gilderoy Lockhart looking handsome and dashing. "What?"
"How dare he write like that?" Hermione slammed shut her signed presentation copy of Battles with Basilisks. "He's put in everything about what happened to poor Ginny, she'll have nightmares all over again if she sees this, and just imagine what they're going to say to her at school now! There's barely a reference to you two, he just elides what you did into generalities! 'I was assisted in the final stages of my quest by Messrs Potter and Weasley, who acquitted themselves bravely and were very helpful in small ways!' Not a bit about you working out where the entrance was, Ron! Or about how he'd never even have got in if you weren't a Parselmouth, Harry! He didn't even mention what I did to discover it was a Basilisk in the first place! How dare he!"
She gathered up the small library she'd bought at Flourish and Blotts in preparation for the new school year, and stormed off in the direction of the Leaky Cauldron. Ron waited until he was absolutely sure she was out of earshot and then sniggered. "Do you think she's over him, then?"
"Completely cured, mate," said Harry, grinning.
"Yeah." Ron hesitated. "I wish he had put in more about us though. All right, I know everything he wrote about himself was actually true, and he did do most of the fighting this time, to be fair … but we did loads more stuff than he mentioned."
"Yeah, well. Celebrity is as celebrity does! Actually … I'm glad in a way. This fame thing's not all it's cracked up to be. Be nice to have a quiet year for a change, wouldn't it?"
"Suppose so," said Ron, sounding oddly serious. "Anyway, he's gone off to round up dragons in Peru now, so if anything happens this year someone else'll have to sort it out." He grinned. "Let us hope that Mr. Potter will always be around to save the day!"
Harry gritted his teeth. A line like that demanded a direct response. "Don't worry. I will be. Ron?"
"There's a spider on your collar."
Author's notes: Originally written for the omniocular AU Extravaganza challenge. Contains a number of lines from canon that have been blatantly ripped off ... er, cunningly alluded to or adapted. Most are from CoS, of course, but there are also a few from other books in the series, the CoS film, and a Simpsons episode with Sting in it. Just for the record, this assumes events happened exactly the way they did in CoS up to the point where Harry and Ron arrive at Lockhart's office. Thanks to lazyneutrino for the beta!