Harry felt the numbing chill of the Dementors and the corresponding rush of panic that invariably accompanied it since he had escape from Azkaban prison.
Next to him, Sirius looked lost.
"What's happening?" asked Hermione. "The Dementors are meant to stay outside of the school."
"Close the doors," said Ron, an edge of fear in his voice.
Remus immediately flicked his wand towards the heavy wooden doors of the infirmary, slamming them shut with a loud, echoing boom that made everybody jump.
In the split second that Remus took his wand away, and with Sirius no longer concentrating, Peter made his bid for freedom.
He changed into his rat form and scrambled under the nearest bed.
Everybody shouted and Sirius fired off a spell that missed but tore a large chunk out of the floor. Remus threw his own spell at the bed, pushing it violently out of the way, but Peter was already out from under it and transforming back into a person.
"Confringo!" the traitor shouted, casting the same spell he had used before to blow up a street and escape from Sirius.
An explosion tore through the room, blasting, beds, chairs, and stone in all directions.
A large chunk of something slammed into Harry's chest, knocking him to the ground. He caught sight of Remus flying through the air and Sirius transforming, but his mind was refusing to cooperate with the horrid Dementor's effect closing in on it.
The yelling and voices around him meant nothing. They were incomprehensible, far-off sounds, echoing through the empty chamber of his mind caused by the terrifying aura.
It was strong, very strong; too strong.
Months away from the regular close visits may have lowered his resistance, but Harry knew this was no ordinary Dementor fly-by. It was almost at as powerful as when two of the creatures entered the cell to deliver his meals, and it was getting stronger.
He could feel the direction it was coming from. Waves of it flooded the room from beyond the closed doors; the strength of each subsequent swell growing in power and duration with every passing second.
Distantly, other sounds were starting to grow louder: screams.
The screams of his mother as she pleaded for his life; the insane screeches of the Azkaban inmates locked in cells just like his; the cries of Hermione as he was dragged from the court.
A cacophony of terror rose in his mind, drowning his thoughts in a tidal wave of primal fear induced sound.
But, his mum was already dead – giving her life in the ultimate expression of love to protect him; he was well away from Azkaban – its fear-maddened inmates a world away from the school he loved; and Hermione was in the room with him – she hugged him mere minutes ago and cried in happiness to have him back.
He refused to let the horrors of his past overwhelm him, as they had so many times before. Not now, not after all he had been through. Forcing his eyes open, he struggled to roll over and get his hands underneath him. The fear was crushing him under its emotional weight, but he clamped his thoughts down and concentrated on the here and now.
Giving in was not an option.
Looking around, Harry saw Remus was down, obviously unconscious. Ron was nowhere to be seen, but Hermione was kneeling on the floor nearby, fighting her own battle of resistance. Her face was cradled in her hands, and Harry could see she was sobbing uncontrollably.
A crashing from the other side of the room signalled where Padfoot was still chasing Wormtail; his massive form shoving beds and tables out of the way, as he relentlessly pursued his prey, barking and snarling in frustration and anger.
Harry knew Sirius was beyond human reasoning; Padfoot was in control. There was no way Sirius could still be functioning with the Dementors this close.
The door suddenly let out a thunderous boom, as if something had crashed into it, and then once again burst open.
Over a dozen of the foul beasts entered, gliding silently into the room like horrid corporeal ghosts. They were in constantly motion, their cloaks billowing on non-existent winds, as they weaved their way through the room to form a large circle around Harry and the others.
Remus moaned pitifully and raised a hand to cover his face, but did not wake up. Hermione sobbed louder, falling down completely before rolling into a foetal ball, and Harry had to struggle even harder to stay conscious.
Suddenly the mind numbing chill receded, as if the monsters were purposely withdrawing their paralysing fear.
Harry drew in a long, ragged breath as he felt more control return to him.
Through the open infirmary door, surrounded by even more Dementors, Minister of Magic, Gilderoy Lockhart, strode purposely into the room.
He no longer looked like the arrogant, incompetent braggart who once pretended to teach Harry Defence against the Dark Arts. Instead, he looked confident and powerful, although still supremely arrogant, just in a different way.
Gilderoy paid little attention to Harry and his friends, but walked calmly over to the bound and unconscious forms of the Auror's Lucius brought with him; a smirk curled the corner of his mouth. The Dementors parted soundlessly before him as he walked.
He gave one of the downed men an absent nudge with his foot.
"Not quite the elite, pure-blood warriors you promised me, Lucius, eh?" he sighed, sounding very disappointed.
There was a strangely unnerving quality to his voice that Harry recognised, but couldn't place. It was not Gilderoy's normal way of speaking, but there was something in it Harry knew somebody else had, although he couldn't recall exactly who it was the cold tone reminded him of.
"My Lord!" moaned Lucius weakly, not sounding completely conscious.
The words triggered a memory in Harry's mind, and the pieces fell into place. In a blazing flash of insight he knew how Lockhart had become so powerful, and what truly happened to the memory of Tom Riddle once locked in the old diary.
"Riddle," said Harry.
Behind him, Hermione gasped.
A look of surprise, and then almost pleasure, crossed the smirking man's face as he swung back to look intently at Harry.
"Well done, Harry," he said, almost proudly. "Nobody else made the connection, well, besides Lucius here, who was so incredibly eager to aid me in my quest to rule the wizarding world."
"How?" asked Harry, almost yelling, his anger helping to overcome the despair induced by the Dementors. "I destroyed you. I burnt you out of Ginny, just like I did to Quirell!"
Gilderoy's expression suddenly twisted, as if in pain, or hatred.
"Oh yes, you expelled me from the Weasley girl, but you could not destroy me, no. I fled from her, but I did not return to the Diary to spend another forty years with nothing but my own thoughts to occupy me.
"I was little more than a spectre, a mere ghost of a memory, but I was still strong enough to leave the Chamber; retreating so that I could find a way to regain my strength. Luckily I did not have to go far to find the damaged shell of the man you left behind."
"You possessed Lockhart - just like you tried to do to Ginny," yelled Harry, struggling to stay angry enough to keep the effects of the Dementors off.
Every little bit seemed to help.
"Not quite. In my, weakened, state, I was only able to take refuge inside his body. Enough of his soul and mind remained that I was not immediately able to control him. Otherwise, I assure you, nobody else would have left the Chamber."
"However, I was soon able to merge with him, awakening his lost memories and making them my own. A lifetime of experience and the genius of the heir of Slytherin combined into one, new entity."
Harry struggled to stand. Riddle-Hart drew his wand and pointed it at a spot directly between Harry's eyes.
"Why did you come back? Have you come all this way just to try and finish me again?" Harry asked.
Riddle-Hart laughed, a cold, cruel laugh, devoid of any true humour.
"Finding you here is really just a bonus, Harry. I came to retrieve the Diary, and to dispose of the Weasley girl. Lucius summoned me when he discovered her here, since he was already searching the country for her on my behalf. It was rather fortunate he stumbled across Dumbledore's little hiding place while the so called 'greatest wizard of his time' was not in residence, don't you think?"
For the first time, Harry realised one of the beds was occupied. Lying, unmoving and deathly pale, on a bed that had been moved but not overturned, was Ginny.
"Why, Tom? Why can't you just leave her alone? Hasn't her family suffered enough because of you?"
"Suffered? My dear boy, I will be doing them a favour by ceasing this hollow existence of hers."
Harry snorted a bitter laugh.
"No matter, Harry. It won't be a concern of yours for much longer," Riddle-Hart said, rasing his wand.
"Expelliarmus!" cried Ron, standing up shakily from behind the trolley where he landed after Wormtail's attack.
The spell caught Riddle-Hart by surprise, ripping the wand from his hand. It tumbled through the air, end-over-end, heading towards Harry. Acting more on instinct than thought, Harry's hand flashed out and expertly snagged the spinning stick from the air.
A warm, tingling thrill ran through his hand, and a burst of golden sparks spewed from the end of the familiar wand, in greeting.
"My wand," said Harry in wonder.
The warmth spread from his hand, racing through his body and igniting the fire of hope.
Ron fired a stunning spell, but the man jumped aside and yelled at the Dementors who were still soundlessly circling.
"Destroy them," he shouted, pointing at Harry.
The Dementors immediately flew straight towards them, but Harry knew what to do.
"Expecto Patronum!" he cast, the wonder and joy at once again holding his beloved holly wand still fresh in his mind.
A huge, glowing, silver shape fell from the end of the wand and onto the floor, flooding Harry with even more feelings of happiness as it coalesced into a solid shape.
A magnificent stag stood between the Dementors and Harry, protecting him from their effects like a shield. Warmth practically radiated from the glowing animal, bathing him in its eerie glow.
"Prongs," whispered Harry.
It was the first time he had ever managed to get a corporeal form from the Patronus charm. The fact it had taken on the Animagus form of his father caused yet more wonder to swell in Harry's chest.
"Brilliant," said Ron groggily, blood running down his face from a cut somewhere on his head.
"Oh my," whispered Hermione to herself. "It's beautiful."
The stag turned it's head to gaze at Harry with ghostly silver eyes, then swung back and launched itself at the Dementors who had crashed to a halt mere feet from it.
The first Dementor was thrown aside by an almost negligent toss of the great Stag's horns, and the next was trampled under implacable, silent feet. The stage swung its head again and two more Dementors where knocked away as if they were nothing more than empty cloaks.
Within seconds, the glowing Stag drove all the Dementors from the room. They fled its unstoppable charges, hastily rushing away at the Patronus's urgings.
A sickly green spell flared at Harry from the other side of the room, narrowly missing him to smash into the wall behind.
Harry yelled and threw himself to the ground, twisting to try and return fire. He saw Ron grab Hermione and duck behind a hospital bed, flipping it over onto its side for more protection.
"You will not escape this time, Mr. Potter," yelled Riddle-Hart, firing more spells as he walked towards them. "I thought deep Azkaban would be enough to get rid of you, but I am glad I will get to have the pleasure of killing you myself."
Harry raised his shield in time to catch another barrage of spells. It bent and buckled, heating up and glowing ominously before finally disappearing in a flash of light.
Then suddenly Sirius was there, standing over him like a mythical guardian angel come to life, except the twisted expression of anger made him appear more demon than angel.
"I don't think so," growled the Animagus.
Riddle-Hart took an involuntary step backwards, surprise and shock replacing the condescending expression of moments ago.
"Black," he said, trying to force on a look of annoyance. "What an unexpected surprise, although, I should have expected you to be near young Harry, shouldn't I?"
Sirius didn't answer, but raised his wand in readiness. Harry scrambled to get to his feet and raised his wand too. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Ron and Hermione both getting their wands ready, although they moved closer to where Remus was lying.
Riddle-Hart looked at them all and laughed with contempt.
"Do you really think you can stop me? I am immortal. Even if you strike down this body, I will live on. What will you do if the next person I possess is one of you? And if you don't kill me, do you really think you'll get away with attacking the Minister of Magic?"
"You will not be Minister for much longer," said a familiar voice wearily from the still open door. "Not once the truth behind your existence becomes widely known."
They all turned to see Albus Dumbledore enter the infirmary. Harry automatically moved his wand to point at him, while Sirius kept his pointed at Riddle-Hart
"Dumbledore!" spat Riddle-Hart with pure hatred. "You don't look too well, Headmaster. Are you sure you are up to a fight?"
Harry looked closely at the Headmaster. His clothes were burned and torn, and in several places, Harry was sure they were caked in blood. Dumbledore's beard was singled and blackened, and a large bruise covered one whole side of the old man's face.
Riddle-Hart was right. Dumbledore didn't look like he would survive a battle.
"Hello, Harry," said the Headmaster, smiling at Harry. "It's good to see you again, although I wish the circumstances were different."
Harry open his mouth, but couldn't speak. What could he say? He was trapped.
"Headmaster!" called Hermione worriedly, moving to take a step closer, but again being held back by Ron. She must have also noticed Dumbledore's state. "Are you all right, sir?"
Dumbledore brushed aside her question and looked directly at Harry.
"Harry," he said calmly. "Move aside."
Confused, Harry almost took a step, but then realised what the headmaster meant. He wanted Harry to move out from between Dumbledore and Sirius.
"No," said Harry. "Sirius is innocent, and we can prove it. Peter Pettigrew was the secret keeper."
Dumbledore looked surprised and saddened. He obviously didn't believe Harry.
"Then he has nothing to fear from me," said Dumbledore.
Riddle-Hart laughed again.
"Tell me, Black. What is it going to be? Going to put your trust in the man that allowed you and your godson to be sent to prison?"
Harry could feel Sirius move nervously beside him.
"Headmaster, Lockhart is possessed by the memory of Tom Riddle-" he started explaining.
"I know, Harry," said Dumbledore, cutting him off.
"Enough!" barked Riddle-Hart. "I am the Minister of Magic-"
A barrage of his favourite bone-breaker curses flew straight at Riddle-Hart's chest.
Riddle easily blocked it and fired a spell back at Sirius's feet.
Dumbledore whirled his wand and magic flared from its end filling the room with a bright light as it swept over them all.
Harry conjured a shield to protect his godfather's flank. Dumbledore's spell splashed against it, just as Riddle-Hart's explosion tore the ground out from under his feet, throwing him across the room to land near the unconscious Madam Pomfrey and knocking the wand from his hand.
Sirius was also tossed to the side by the explosion, but away from Harry.
Immediately Riddle launched an attack at Dumbledore, who was already counter attacking even before the first spell was airborne.
Sirius rolled to his feet and fired into the fray, although Harry wasn't entirely sure of his target.
Behind Sirius, Harry saw Hermione trying to shield the bed with Ginny on it, while Ron dragged Remus towards them, possibly intending on combining their efforts at protection.
Spells and explosions filled the room as the three-way battle escalated. Debris rained down as blocked spells rebounded or deflected in all directions to vent their energy against the room.
It was chaos.
Harry saw a bed curtain tear from it's hangings to wrap tightly around Riddle-Hart as a dinner tray spun viciously at Sirius and the sickly green of a killing curse flew at Dumbledore.
A steel bedpan leaped into the air in front of the Headmaster, intercepting the deadly spell before shattering in a fire-works like pyrotechnic display.
Sirius caught the spinning tray with a spell and redirected it towards the curtain wrapped Riddle-Hart before firing several potent stunners towards Dumbledore.
The binding curtain dissolved in gouts of writhing flame, leaving an unhurt Riddle-Hart to fend off the high-speed tray at the last second.
Harry saw Dumbledore attempting to prevent spells from slipping passed, towards Harry or the others. Much if his efforts went into animating furniture to attack or defend, rather than directly trying to hit either of the other two men.
Riddle-Hart noticed Dumbledore's actions too, and occasionally fired spells at Harry or the others, just to force the struggling Headmaster to exert himself harder. Every other spell the Minister cast was the killing curse, making his attacks the most deadly, but many of them were used up destroying the Headmaster's creations before they could attack.
Sirius continuously attacked both Riddle-Hart and the Headmaster, barely taking the time to defend himself, but opting to move out of the way rather than rely on a shield. He was firing almost non-stop, spraying near-lethal spells at anything and everything.
Harry shook his head to clear it of the lingering effects from the explosion, and urgently started searching for his wand so he could rejoin the battle.
Instead of finding his recently reclaimed wand, he found Riddle's diary.
It was lying on the ground near Malfoy, as if it had fallen out of the man's robes. Lucius was struggling weakly and ineffectually to free himself from the ropes Remus had conjured. His eyes were glazed, and Harry realised he was still not properly conscious.
Harry crawled over and grabbed the Diary, unsure what to do with it, but determined not to let it leave him again. He felt helpless, but without a wand he would only be getting in the way.
A blue spell from Riddle-Hart slammed into Sirius, lifting him off the ground with the power of its collision.
Harry cried out as his godfather crashed to the ground, and got up to run to him, knowing there was nothing he could do.
"Harry!" called Hermione in warning.
The distraction caused Harry to misjudge his footing. He tripped and fell over Madam Pomfrey's body, landing heavily on the floor, but desperately holding on to the diary.
"Just you and me now, old man," panted Riddle-Hart.
The Minister was bleeding from several deep cuts, and was breathing heavily, almost wheezing with effort, but Dumbledore looked far worse.
The Headmaster leaned against a wall, his breath coming in ragged gasps. Whatever had happened before entering the hospital obviously drained him badly, and the fight was taking its toll. Harry knew Dumbledore couldn't continue for much longer.
Dumbledore looked past Riddle-Hart, directly at Harry.
Harry didn't know how, but the headmaster caught his eye, and then flicked his gaze at something near where Harry was lying, instructing him with a single glance.
The basilisk fang lay on the ground, a mere two feet in front of Harry's hand.
At that moment, Harry knew what he had to do, what he should have done all those months ago in the Chamber when Fawkes had dropped the book into his hands.
Not wasting time getting up, Harry scrambled over to grab the fang, and immediately plunged it into the cover of the Diary. Black ink spurted from the book, like blood from a mortal wound.
Riddle-Hart screamed, and so did the book.
Horrified, Harry pulled the fang out. Ink continued to pour from it, covering his hands in thick ichor.
Riddle-Hart blasted Dumbledore aside with an unexpected burst of raw magic, and turned his wand on Harry. Before he could bring it down, a huge black dog came out of nowhere and ploughed into him.
Hesitating only for a second, Harry plunged the fang in again, driving it right through and out the other side.
A dreadful screeching filled the room as Riddle-Hart's body exploded into a blaze of ethereal light.
Padfoot leaped off, and backed away, growling as he limped backwards.
The body convulsed horribly, arching its spine until Harry was sure it would snap. All the while, the white light shone from every part of it, and a voice like a banshee rang out through the castle.
Then it stopped.
The light faded and the body fell lifelessly to the floor. The sound evaporated completely.
A cry from Ron brought Harry out of his stupor.
On the bed where Ron and Hermione had taken cover, Ginny moved her arm weakly.
Hey Kiddo. Harry. Little Prongs.
You use to play on my knee as a baby, remember? I was there for your first steps. Your dad was my best friend in the whole world. Your mum used to cook my favourite dish every Wednesday because she knew I'd always be there.
Listen to me kid. I didn't turn on him. It wasn't me.
Look it doesn't matter if you believe me or not, just listen. When the Dementors come back, in about an hour, hold onto the thought that you are innocent. Keep that one thought and all that it means in your head.
Don't listen to the memories, the Dementors will drag out your worst ones and feed on your good ones. Keep reminding yourself you are innocent, over and over again. It's not a happy memory so they can't feed on it, and it'll stop you going crazy.
What? Of course you are innocent. I don't need a crystal ball to know my godson would be a good man, no matter what happened to him. We all make mistakes, but you can't let them get to you in here, not unless you want to end up like those loonies out there that can't stop screaming.
Look, what have you go to lose? Just try it. Repeat it in your head over and over. Force yourself to remember why you are innocent. Use it to keep you mind together.
What? No, it won't make it any better, but it will keep you from losing it completely.
Me? Been here a bit too long to be totally sane, but I know one thing for sure - I am innocent, and those blasted creatures can't take that away from me.
Trust me, Harry.
The falcon dropped steadily from the clear blue sky towards the young couple sitting at the edge of the lake. They watched it gracefully glide towards them, flaring its wings to almost hover before there was a soft pop, and Harry Potter stood in front of his friends.
A small stand of trees hid them from direct view of the castle, and all of the students were in classes. The Aurors and other Ministry people investigating the death of the Minister were thankfully long gone, so there was little danger of discovery.
A recent newspaper lay discarded on the ground at Harry's feet.
Minister for Magic Possessed
Lucius Malfoy Arrested
The headlines were the most accurate part of the article; the rest made up from rumours and conjecture based on the scant reports leaking from the chaos enshrined Ministry of Magic.
Personal experience meant Harry knew enough about the corruption and biased riddled paper to know there was no point trying to get the real truth printed, but he still felt disgusted at some of the ridiculous notions they were pushing as truth.
One day he wanted to see the perpetrators of the scandal rag punished for their lies; them and the gullible public that worshipped it.
"So what's the verdict?" asked Ron. He was leaning against a tree with one of his arms casually draped over Hermione's shoulders. "You staying or going?"
"It would be safest for you to remain here, Harry," said the ancient Headmaster.
Harry looked out of the window of the old man's office and laughed bitterly.
"Safe? Like first year when Quirell nearly killed me twice? Or safe like second year? And what about Sirius? Would you stop the Auror's taking him away for questioning? What about if the courts decided he was guilty of something?"
The hesitation in the old man's answer told Harry everything he needed to know.
"Very well then," said the Headmaster with resignation. "I will do my utmost to help prepare an alternate residence for you."
"Going," Harry answered sadly. "Dumbledore tried to talk me out of it, but I am going where Sirius goes, and until he is declared a free man, Hogwarts is too dangerous for him, now that a few people know he was here."
"Surely they believe Professor Dumbledore?" asked Hermione. "And you gave them Pettigrew as proof."
"Sirius, where is Peter?" asked Harry
He was leaning heavily on the only table to survive the destruction of the hospital, while Remus and Madam Pomfrey tended the exhausted and injured Headmaster. The nurse was tutting and mumbling so much that Harry suspected Dumbledore was not going to be allowed out of bed for a month, if she had her way.
The headmaster had sent away the other teachers, who finally arrived to investigate the commotion in the hospital wing, with vague promises of lengthy explanations later.
Sirius had not changed back yet, preferring to stay in dog form.
Padfoot trotted away into the depths of the ruined room, returning moments later with the bloodied, broken, and obviously lifeless body of Wormtail clutched gently in his massive jaws.
He laid the corpse of the betrayer at Harry's feet almost tenderly.
The simple action nearly broke Harry's heart, and he couldn't bring himself to ask if there had been any other choice.
Harry shook his head.
"Dumbledore managed to force the body back into human shape, but without Pettigrew's confession, it's not that easy," he explained, leaving out the fact neither of them trusted Dumbledore very much.
"What about Malfoy?" asked Ron. "I know he was Obliviated, but I still don't understand why."
"It's obvious, Ronald," said Hermione. "The fewer people who know about Padfoot and Tweety, the better. While they still need to hide, the secret could be vital to their safety."
"He is still facing charges about Riddle's Diary and few other things he did during my trial," assured Harry. "The memories we took don't make any difference to that. He thinks he was unconscious the whole time after Tweety broke his arm."
"Tweety," laughed Ron. "How could you let them pick a name like that for you?"
"Ron!" admonished Hermione smiling playfully. "It's very impressive that he became an Animagus at all. You can't expect him to come up with a clever nick-name too…"
"You see, Harry," explained Dumbledore, the twinkle in his eye reaching new heights of amusement. "If I were to be asked to guess your Animagus form, I may well have picked a Falcon, due to your love of flying, but rather than a Peregrine, I would have expected you to have been a Merlin."
"Merlin", thought Harry. "Now that would have been a great Marauder name."
"It's only temporary," he explained. "Until I can come up with something better."
"I wouldn't be waiting around for inspiration, if I was you," said Ron. "A name as bad as that is likely to have a nasty habit of overstaying its welcome."
"So what will happen with your re-trial?" asked Hermione. "Does Professor Dumbledore still believe you will be cleared, even if you don't appear at it?"
"I am well aware that Professor Snape has indeed opened that Chamber and removed the Basilisk, but that is no longer your best defence," explained Dumbledore, to both Harry and Sirius. "Miss Weasley, when she recovers sufficiently, will be able to collaborate your version of events leading up to her kidnapping. Without Gilderoy-"
"Or Malfoy," injected Sirius.
"-there is little doubt you will be declared innocent."
'Little' doubt was still way too much for Harry to risk being sent back to Azkaban. There was no way he was willingly going back into Ministry custody, not for one second.
Harry nodded in answer to Hermione's question, choosing not to answer in case he slipped and said too much. Faith in the wizarding world was not something Harry stocked in great quantities at the moment.
"How's Ginny?" he asked Ron instead.
"The diary was more than mere a memory of Tom Riddle," explained Dumbledore. "It was a vile object of the very darkest nature. My absence and injuries were a direct result of my quest to obtain more information about it, and how to best undo the evil it perpetrated on Ms. Weasley. I can assure you however, that the radical solution you provided was more than adequate, and Ms. Weasley should be in, and of, no further danger."
"As good as can be expected," answered Ron enthusiastically. "She has the same healers that treated me, and they say she'll be up and about again soon, although it'll be a while before she gets over spending almost a year trapped alone inside a book. Good thing Dumbledore worked it out and did something to keep her busy, although she says he put some pretty weird stuff in there. She's miles ahead when it comes to schoolwork. The rest is just going to take time for her to work through it."
Harry nodded; glad that his efforts to save her, the very act that started this whole nightmare, had not gone to waste.
"Harry," said Ron. "My folks, they want to say sorry-"
"I know, Ron," said Harry. "But it's still too soon. You should tell the twins about what happened with them and me though – they deserve that. The rest is going to have to wait until I've had a bit more time, okay?"
"Speaking of time," said Hermione, reaching inside of her top to draw out a small, golden hour glass hanging from a delicate necklace.
She lifted the chain over her head and handed it to Harry carefully. Ron looked surprised, but didn't object.
"That's a Time-Turner," she explained. "It will let you go back in time a few hours, but you have to be really careful how you use it. Professor Lupin will be able to explain it properly to you."
Harry knew his mouth was hanging open.
"You know, I for one am not going to miss that thing," said Ron. "Seems like I've been studying forever, this year, but aren't you going to get in trouble with McGonagall, Hermione?"
"I told her it was broken during the fight in the hospital," she answered, looking quite embarrassed.
Ron laughed and gave her a hug. "That's my girl," he said.
Harry's brain finally caught up.
"This is why you seemed to be running all over the place, isn't it? You kept using this to go to extra lessons and things, right? No wonder Tweety got confused all the time when it came to you two."
"Only way I was ever going to make it through the year with a pass mark," said Ron. "It did come right in handy for setting up a few pranks too. Best alibi maker in the world that thing is. 'Oh no, Professor Snape, I was in the Great Hall all lunch – you can ask anybody!'"
All three laughed a bit before falling into an uncomfortable silence. The lapping of small waves caused by the giant squid as it lounged about on the surface of the lake, and the happy chirping of birds in the near-by forest, made for a peaceful and soothing background.
"So, when do you leave?" asked Hermione.
"Tomorrow morning," answered Harry. "Padfoot and Moony have gone to prepare one of their places, and Dumbledore is going to take me there and then put the final wards in place. He says he needs to talk with them some more too, but I'm not quite sure what he is planing. They reckon this house is the safest place we can stay until we are all healed up or declared innocent, but neither of them seems very happy. I get the feeling it's not very pleasant there."
"Doesn't leave us much time," said Ron sadly. "I don't suppose we are going to be allowed to come visit you much, once school is out?"
Harry laughed and held up the hourglass.
"I reckon we'll have all the time in the world, Ron."
"All the time in the world."
In a grimy and dank cell in the lowest level of the most feared prison of the Wizarding world, a lone voice cried out in triumph, shattering the silence.
After months of work, she had succeeded. Endless hours of trying desperately to recall snatches of overheard conversations finally paid off.
The voice wasn't human, but it still belonged to Bellatrix Lestrange.
Final Author's Note.
Yes this is the end of the tale.
The plot outline always had it finishing at this point, so it is not "cut short" or anything like that. This was the complete story with the ending exactly where I planned it all along.
Sorry if you were expecting hundreds of chapters and a story going through to seventh year, but I did say this was a third year AU story. Read my story "The Memory Chest" if you want a longer, fairly canon, seventh year story written before DH was released.
I have a few ideas for an AU fourth year sequel to Fugitives, but it might not happen, since I find myself lacking enthusiasm (and time) for it.
Thanks to all the people who left encouraging comments, especially those of you who messaged me mistakes, and to the people at AFC.
Please leave feedback to let me know what you think about my story.