(A/N: Here we are again - the last chapter. I'd like to thank everyone who has reviewed so far. I hope you enjoy this story as much as I enjoyed writing it.)
It was a strange group that walked into the girl's bathroom a few minutes later. Ron and Vincent both kept their wands trained on Lockhart. Tifa and Aerith huddled together behind them, whispering to each other. The ghost of a girl watched them all from over a cubicle as Cloud stepped forward to show Harry the sink.
"There, you see," he said, pointing at the tiny snake on the tap.
Harry nodded. "So… should I just tell it to open?"
They all waited as Harry stared very hard at the sink and spoke in a rather shaky voice. "Open!"
Cloud shook his head. "No, that was in English. You need to speak in Parseltongue."
"How can I when I don't even know when I'm speaking it?"
Cloud licked his lips nervously. He hadn't known that, but he trusted Harry to succeed anyway.
"I dunno," Ron offered, "but what about those other times you spoke Parseltongue? Can you remember how you did it then?"
Harry looked thoughtful. "I was talking to a snake both times…" Suddenly he moved his head, bobbing it up and down, his eyes fixed on the etching of the snake. And when he spoke this time, it was in a low hiss. It was a horrible sound to hear from another human being.
At once the sink reacted; it moved and sank back into the wall, revealing the dark opening of a pipe. Lockhart whimpered again as Vincent and Ron shoved him forwards.
"Off you go," said Harry.
"Boys, please…" His voice turned into a yell as they pushed him in. His frightened cries echoed all the way down, but then there was a soft thump and the yelling stopped.
"Are you all right?" Harry called.
They heard a vague annoyed splutter.
"He's alive," said Harry. "Let's go."
Cloud turned to the two girls. "Aerith, Tifa, you wait here."
Aerith put her hands on her hips. "No. We've come this far already. We're all going and that's final."
He sighed. His feelings were horribly conflicted. On the one hand, it felt comforting to have all his friends there with him, facing the danger together. But on the other, he was all too aware that they might not all survive this. He had promised to protect Tifa and he didn't want Aerith to get hurt either. But as he looked at the pair of them, their arms linked and their faces set in identical expressions, he knew the decision had already been made.
A pearly white ghost floated up behind the two girls. She wore thick glasses and a mournful expression.
"You're going to face the monster?" she asked.
Tifa and Aerith jumped. Aerith looked behind her and sighed with relief. "It's only Moaning Myrtle."
"Yeah, we are," Harry answered.
Myrtle twirled her fingers shyly. "If you don't make it, you can always come and live with me in my toilet," she offered.
Harry's cheeks turned faintly pink.
"Er, that's really nice of you, Myrtle. Thanks." He avoided looking at the others and cleared his throat. "So… this is it."
They nodded and one by one they jumped into the pipe. Cloud followed Vincent. He crawled in, not without a great deal of trepidation, but before his fear could overwhelm him and make him climb out again, he lost his grip and yelled as he slid down the pipe. It was so dark – all he could sense was the movement and the rough surface of the pipe beneath him. He grazed his elbow as he turned a corner and after that he tucked his arms in. The journey was over surprisingly fast – he toppled out into a cave.
Vincent had already stood up and lit his wand so they could see where they were. As Cloud pulled himself to his feet, making sure his own wand was still gripped in his hand, Aerith tumbled into the cave as well. Soon they were all as ready as they could be. The sound of their breathing seemed to increase threefold in the echoing silence of the cave.
"I think we must be under the lake," said Aerith, looking up at the damp, dripping ceiling.
"Well," said Harry unsteadily, "we have to keep moving."
So they picked their way through the cave, using their wands to light the way. Cloud noticed that Ron hadn't cast a spell – instead, he kept his wand pointed at Lockhart. Ron's wand was wrapped clumsily with Spellotape. That puzzled Cloud for a moment until he remembered how Ron had broken it right at the start of term. It had never worked properly since.
"What's that?" said Tifa.
Her wand light had reflected off something scaly. They moved closer and Cloud stifled a cry as he realised that the something was a discarded snake skin. It shone a vivid green and it made him ill to think of the thing that had shed it.
"It's huge," said Ron. "Imagine the size of that thing…"
The sight did nothing for their spirits. Indeed, Cloud felt sick with fear, and it was only the presence of his companions that spurred him to go on. Lockhart, however, seemed to have lost all of his courage, if he had ever possessed any. He stopped and refused to move. His teeth chattered.
"Come on," Ron growled, holding up his wand threateningly.
"My dear boy," Lockhart stuttered, "really… is there any need?" He stretched out his arms towards Ron imploringly, and then, without warning, he shoved Ron to the ground. Ron's wand flew out of his hand and Lockhart picked it up triumphantly.
"You sneaky –" Vincent started, raising his own wand. But none of them had time to react before Lockhart twirled the wand, an unpleasant smile on his face.
"Obliviate!" he cried.
A blast shook the cave; Cloud's ears rang and he fell; dizzying pain shot through his head. The wand lights all flickered out; the last impression he had was of tumbling rocks, dark gritty dust and the screams of his companions. Everything went dark. He sat up, wincing, and rubbed the back of his head. The blast had knocked him against a rock – but what had happened?
"Lumos," Cloud muttered. The narrow beam of light fell on Tifa, who was sitting on the floor looking dazed.
Someone else lit their wand. It was Vincent. Both of them looked around.
"Are we all here?" Cloud asked.
Cloud's stomach dropped. Harry wasn't there.
"Ron?" said a frantic voice. The voice was Harry's and Cloud suddenly realised what had happened. Part of the ceiling had collapsed, leaving Harry alone on one side and everyone else on the other.
"We're here," Ron croaked. He hadn't moved; he was clutching his leg and appeared to be in some pain. "We're all okay."
Cloud and Vincent moved closer to the barrier of rocks separating them, the better to hear Harry's reply.
"I'm going on alone," said Harry. "You all just try to shift some of these rocks, okay? I'll be back soon."
"No!" said Cloud. "Wait for us; we'll get through, it won't take long."
"I'm going on," said Harry firmly. "Just make sure you clear a way back for me. See you."
They heard receding footsteps. He had gone.
"I can't believe this," whispered Aerith. She was crouching next to Ron and freed his leg which had been trapped by debris. "Can you get up, Ron?"
"Yeah," said Ron, though his face was creased with pain.
Meanwhile, Tifa had walked over to inspect Lockhart. Their teacher was lying on the hard floor, unconscious. She picked up Ron's wand and examined it.
"What happened?" she asked.
"My wand," Ron muttered. "It backfired."
Tifa handed the wand to him. "It looks broken," she said. "Are you going to get a new one?"
Ron took his wand and turned away, muttering something incomprehensible.
"Well," said Cloud, "I suppose we'd better make a start moving these rocks…"
It was hard, nerve-wracking work. None of them knew enough magic to blast the rocks away and there was also the fear that trying to use magic might cause more of the cave to collapse. So they picked away the rocks one by one, as carefully as possible and very soon their faces were sweaty and their hands begrimed by dirt. Cloud noticed that Ron seemed to be having more difficulty than the others; he was limping.
"Is your leg hurt?" he asked.
Ron shook his head. "It's nothing."
"I can heal it for you," Cloud offered. He drew out his materia from the folds of his robes. It shone green in the darkness. Ron stared at it.
"You've still got that glowing marble?"
"Materia," Cloud corrected. And before Ron could protest, he cast the spell, feeling the magic well up from the stone and diffuse out of his body. A pale light danced along Ron's leg. Ron squinted as the light faded. He tapped his foot experimentally.
"It worked." He sounded surprised.
"Of course it worked," Cloud snapped. Why did they never expect anything he did to succeed?
"All right, all right," said Ron. "Thanks."
Time passed. The silence was unbroken except for their ragged breaths and the shifting of the rocks. It seemed like nobody wanted to voice what they were really thinking. Would Harry survive? Would any of them make it?
"He's coming to," Tifa called.
Everyone raised their wands and watched as Gilderoy Lockhart stirred, his eyes blinking. He yawned and stretched and only then seemed to notice where they were.
"It's a bit dark in here, isn't it?" he said.
This flummoxed Cloud. Nobody answered him. Then Aerith stepped forward hesitantly.
Lockhart scratched his head and looked behind him. "Who?"
"Oh," Aerith breathed. "He tried to cast a Memory Charm on us, remember? But…"
Cloud caught a flicker of movement at the corner of his eye. He interrupted Aerith with a shout. "What's that?"
They all looked up. A warm light glittered on the ceiling for a second. Something bright and gleaming swooped down – a bird with brilliant fire-red and golden plumage. Cloud watched open-mouthed as Harry, Ginny and the phoenix tumbled down together. The phoenix perched on Harry's shoulder and rubbed its head against his cheek. Harry smiled to see them all gawping.
"H-how did that bird get here?" Ron asked.
Tifa ran up to Ginny and hugged her. Everyone else was too astonished to move. Harry noticed Lockhart, who was standing and looking around with a vague, slack expression.
"What's up with him?" he asked.
"His Memory Charm backfired," said Aerith. "I'm not sure he even knows who he is."
Lockhart smiled at Harry. "Odd sort of place this, isn't it? Do you all live here?"
The phoenix fluttered into the air and beckoned them.
"Come on," said Harry. "I think Fawkes wants us to follow him."
"But what happened?" Cloud asked.
"I'll explain later."
A few minutes later they were all flying up the pipe, with Harry gripping Fawkes' tail feathers and the rest of them holding on to him in a long line. Cloud's stomach swooped as they shot up; he laughed in delight. Phoenixes were the most magical of birds but even so he could hardly believe that Fawkes was able to carry such a heavy load. And yet they flew up as if gravity didn't even exist.
Lockhart seemed impressed as well. "Amazing! Amazing!" he cried. "This is just like magic!"
Professor McGonagall could never have looked more astonished when Harry, Ron, Cloud, Vincent, Aerith, Tifa, a dazed Professor Lockhart and an alive and well Ginny Weasley all trooped into her office. The Headmaster, Professor Dumbledore was there too. He raised his eyebrows and smiled as each of them came in. Two red-headed people who could only have been Ron and Ginny's parents gasped at the sight of their daughter. Ginny's mother enveloped her in a crushing embrace. She had tears in her eyes.
Cloud smiled. It was great to see the family reunited. But at the same time he couldn't help feeling a little pang in his heart. He looked at Tifa. She too was watching the family with a happy, yet forlorn expression. She noticed his gaze and gave him a wistful smile. Cloud blushed. He thought of his mother, by herself at home. And Tifa's father, the stubborn old man who still refused to let Cloud anywhere near his daughter. They hadn't talked about it recently. Maybe he should ask her… But first he wanted to know exactly what had happened.
So he listened avidly as Harry told Dumbledore and the others his story. It turned out Ginny had been possessed by none other than Lord Voldemort – or at least, something like Lord Voldemort – some kind of spirit in a diary. With Fawkes' help, Harry had killed the Basilisk and stabbed the diary with one of its fangs, thereby destroying the spirit within.
Tifa gasped when she heard about the diary. She leaned over to Cloud and whispered in his ear.
"I saw her with that diary… I even encouraged her to write in it, to pour out her feelings if it'd make her feel better. Oh, Cloud, what a stupid thing to do! Why didn't I realise?"
Cloud squeezed her arm. "None of us realised. It's not your fault, Tifa. Everything worked out fine in the end."
And so it did. Dumbledore awarded them all one hundred points to their respective Houses, plus awards for Special Services to the School, which made them all puff up with pride. There was something to tell his mother! The Petrified victims were all cured, so Harry, Ron and Hermione were reunited. Dumbledore also announced that all the exams were being cancelled as a school treat, and only Hermione managed to be unhappy about that. At the end of term feast, they were told that Lockhart was leaving, in order to get his memory back, which prompted a large number of cheers – particularly from the Ravenclaw table, Cloud was amused to notice.
The end of the year came and Cloud, Vincent, Tifa and Aerith were about to part. The platform was crowded with students yelling their goodbyes as usual. The Hogwarts train looked fine and scarlet on a hot, bright summer's day. They seemed so far away from the underground horrors of the Chamber of Secrets.
"Hey, Cloud," said Aerith. "Let's have one final picture, of all of us."
"Good idea!" said Tifa. "You still have your camera, don't you?"
"Yeah." Cloud opened his trunk and scrabbled about for it. He found the camera and checked it – there were still a few shots left. Meanwhile, Aerith tapped another girl on the shoulder.
"Hey, Lisa, can you do us a favour and take a photo of us?"
"Okay," said Lisa, putting down her trunk.
Cloud gave her the camera and went to stand with Vincent, Tifa and Aerith. They all put their arms around each other, Tifa and Aerith in the middle, with her cat twisting in and out of their legs.
The camera flashed. Lisa gave it back to Cloud, who thanked her.
"There we are," said Aerith. "Proof that we all survived. And we'll be friends forever, right?"
"Right," said Tifa.
"See you next year!" Aerith hugged her friend.
Tifa smiled but then she noticed her father at the other end of the platform. He started towards her. She disengaged herself from Aerith and whispered in Cloud's ear urgently.
"Cloud, write to me this summer, won't you? I can't – ah – Moggy!" The cat jumped up and squirmed in her arms. It hissed at Cloud. He thought the cat must have channelled Tifa's father's spirit. Great.
"See you!" Tifa gabbled.
She hurried off to meet her disapproving father. Vincent nodded at them and strode off to meet his family. Now only Cloud and Aerith were left, with their heavy trunks. Their two owls were competing to see which could make the loudest screeches. Aerith leaned closer to him so he could hear her over the racket.
"You know," she said thoughtfully, "there's one more thing I would have liked to have asked Harry about our adventure."
"How on earth does he know Moaning Myrtle? She haunts the girls' toilets and I don't think she ever comes out."
Cloud decided he really didn't want to know the answer to that one.
(A/N: The end. :) If you've read all this story, then please do take an extra minute or two to drop me a review and offer your opinion. I really do appreciate it. If you're hoping for another sequel, well, I don't really have any inspiration for it at the moment. I hope these two stories can stand alone regardless. Thanks for reading!)