A/N: Guys, I am so sorry for the ridiculously long wait! But I have a really good excuse: my laptop died, and it took me forever to get it fixed and sorted out, what with school and everything. I've been using the family computer, but the story was saved on the laptop, so I couldn't get to it. Thankfully, it's all fixed now, so I'm very sorry to anyone who thought I had abandoned this or anything. For anyone who's still reading this, I hope you enjoy!
As Ginny slowly regained consciousness, the first thing she noticed was that she was absolutely freezing cold. And rather than lying in her bed as she'd normally expect upon waking up, she seemed to be lying on something that was both very hard, and a very long way from the ceiling above her. She let out a groan as some of the pain her body was feeling seeped through to her numb mind. She felt as though her entire body had been pounded into mulch. Or possibly forced through a blender. Before she could even begin to imagine where she could be, she heard a gasp from somewhere near, and then there was Harry. The sight of his dirty, mucky, bloodstained appearance caused everything to come flooding back, and suddenly she was sobbing. Sitting up, she threw her arms around Harry, ignoring the muck, as, in the dim recesses of her mind she realised that she probably didn't look any better.
"Harry," she began. "You have to get out of here! It's dangerous, and Tom! Oh Merlin – Tom! Harry, he's Voldemort, and he's after you – and the Basilisk – you have to leave! I'm so sorry, I didn't mean to – "
"Gin, calm down," Harry said, finally succeeding in halting the flow of words after several failed attempts. "It's alright. Riddle – Tom – he's gone. The diary, everything. It's all over."
Ginny blinked up at him as she was hit by a wave of feelings. Tom was gone? It was over? How could –
It was only then that Ginny took a proper look around the Chamber, finally noticing the Basilisk: huge, terrifying, and quite obviously dead. In disbelief, she swung back around to stare at Harry, and the gleaming, bloodstained sword caught her attention.
"Harry, did you – did you kill that thing?" Ginny found her voice was shaking, but she didn't particularly care.
"Er, Fawkes helped," Harry said rather lamely, reaching up to scratch the back of his neck, before realising that that hand held the Sorting Hat.
Seeing this, Ginny looked up at him in confusion. "Er, Harry I can understand the sword and everything, though I won't even begin to imagine where you found it, but why are you carrying an old hat?"
At her obvious uncertainty, Harry bit back a smile. Frankly, he was relieved that she'd stopped crying. A Basilisk he could handle. A crying Ginny? Not so much. "It's kind of a long story. Why don't we get out of here? Ron and Lockhart are waiting at the entrance."
"Ron's here?" Ginny asked, finding herself strangely delighted at the prospect of seeing her brother after everything that had happened. "Wait, Lockhart's here? Why isn't he with you, then? He's the professor; he's supposed to be protecting his students, not waiting around til after they're done slaying Basilisks and evil Dark Lords."
Her righteous indignation was rather gratifying to Harry, although the thought of Lockhart attempting to fight Voldemort was laughable. "Lockhart's not really in a state to fight off a squirrel at the moment," he said. At Ginny's look of confusion, he just shook his head. "You'll see."
Ginny suddenly drew grave and Harry looked at her in concern.
"Oh Merlin, Harry! I'm going to be in so much trouble! They'll never let me into Hogwarts now; they'll probably throw me in Azkaban! I tried to murder the students!" Ginny's voice was quiet, but the panic was plain.
Harry shook his head. "Gin, that wasn't you. Of course you'll be at Hogwarts next year; Dumbledore will understand." Ginny still didn't look particularly convinced, but she allowed Harry to pull her to her feet without another protest.
Together, leaning on each other for support, they made their way back through the Chamber and into the tunnel, Fawkes fluttering encouragingly above them. Harry was glad to see that it was still lit with that eerie green glow, as even a lumos spell seemed quite beyond him at the moment. As they moved further down the tunnel, they could here scrabbling sounds of rock being displaced, and nearing closer, they could hear Ron talking angrily.
"Oh, come on! It's a piece of bloody rock! It's not about to jump up and start tap dancing!" Through the small gap he'd made in the rocks, they could see his back was to them. He seemed to be talking to Lockhart, if the aggravation in his voice was anything to go by. "Put the bloody thing down and help me shift this so we can go and help Harry!"
Harry and Ginny shared a grin.
"I don't know, Ron. Stranger things have happened in the Wizarding World than tap-dancing rocks."
"Harry?" Ron span around so fast that he nearly over balanced, causing Ginny to let out a small giggle.
"Ginny!" Ron was beaming, and like a man possessed, he began shovelling rocks out of the way until the hole was big enough for them to squeeze through. He reached out and pulled Ginny through the hole and into a back-breaking hug that would rival their mother's.
He reached out to pull Harry through, but before he could, Fawkes swooped down through the gap. Seeing Ron's incredulity, Harry grinned. "He's Dumbledore's."
Ron turned to stare at Harry, and for the first time, noticed what he was carrying.
"Woah! Where'd you get a sword?" He asked, dumbstruck.
Harry clambered through the gap, Ron belatedly remembering to offer a hand. "It's a bit of a long story, and I don't really want to tell it too often. Let's wait til we get to McGonagall's office."
Ron looked ready to protest, but Harry shot a significant look at Ginny, who, at the mention of McGonagall, had turned rather pale and was biting her lip worriedly. With surprising tact, Ron nodded, turning instead to the giant slide.
"How are we going to get back up there?" he asked.
Stumped, Harry looked aimlessly around him for inspiration. He was just gazing at the sword, wondering vaguely if it would be possible to somehow use it as a pick-axe to climb the slide, when Fawkes swooped in front of him and stopped, directly in front of his face. The phoenix was looking at Harry expectantly, and in as dignified a manner as possible, he wriggled his tail feathers slightly.
"Er, I think he wants us to grab hold," Harry said tentatively, looking at Fawkes for confirmation. The Phoenix gave the smallest nod of agreement, and Harry, without anything better to do, took a handful of the bird's large tail in his hand.
"You've got to be kidding me!" Ron exclaimed. "How is that bird going to carry all of us out of here?"
"Fawkes is no ordinary bird."
Fawkes carried all four of them, with seemingly no effort, not just up the slide, but out of the bathroom, and all the way to McGonagall's office. Harry had a vague thought that it was a good thing everyone was confined to their Common Rooms, as the sight of them forming a sort of flying chain would look rather bizarre. And it appeared closed doors were of little consequence to a Phoenix, as Fawkes didn't bother to let them down before flying straight through the door into the office and depositing them in front of a room of startled adults.
For a split second, nobody moved. Ginny could see her mother, Lily and Katie on either side of her, collapsed in a chair before the desk, tears still pouring down their faces as they stared in shock at the children in front of them. Her father seemed to have paused mid pace, his mouth open and his foot raised. Behind him, Remus, Sirius and James were all gobsmacked, as Dumbledore looked on, seated at the desk, his surprise quickly being replaced with the familiar twinkle in his eye.
And then there was a shriek, and Molly was pulling Ginny into the tightest embrace she had ever experienced. Which was saying something, really. Professor McGonagall, who had been standing behind the door, collapsed into Molly's vacant chair, her knees seemingly having given out beneath her. As though these two movements were some kind of trigger, Arthur, Lily, James, Sirius, Katie, and Remus surged forward, everyone exclaiming at once.
"Oh thank Merlin everyone's alright!"
"You saved her!"
"How did you do it?"
And then Lily's voice could be heard above the clamour; "Young man, just where exactly did you get a sword?"
Once again, everyone paused, this time staring at the glittering, bloodstained sword still clutched in Harry's hand. Before Harry had a chance to answer, Dumbledore held up his hand for silence.
"I believe this has the makings of a rather long story." He said, his blue eyes twinkling fully now. "Might I suggest that we allow everybody to take a seat before young Mr Potter begins?"
He waved his hand and a large selection of seats appeared, the room seeming to expand to accommodate them.
Harry and Ginny each gratefully sank into two cushy armchairs, with Ron seated on one side and Molly the other. They exchanged quick looks before Ginny indicated that Harry should begin. She was feeling quite ashamed and wished to speak as little as possible. Everyone in this room (with the exception of Lockhart) meant the world to her. She admired them all greatly, even Ron, and felt terrible that her stupidity had nearly caused the rebirth of Voldemort.
She had plenty of time to dwell on these thoughts as Harry told his story; about hearing the disembodied voice, following the spiders to Aragog's lair, Hermione's message... As he talked, she found herself feeling more and more stupid. If only she'd said something to someone, told them about the diary. She should have known the diary was dangerous. When Harry mentioned the letter he had received that morning, she only became more frustrated with herself. That stupid letter could have gotten him killed! Thankfully, Harry was rather good at staying alive, but that didn't change the fact that he had nearly died because of her.
As Harry continued his story, he was becoming more and more uncomfortable. For starters, everyone was staring at him as though they couldn't decide whether to yell at him for being so reckless, or be in awe of everything he had done. When he mentioned that he and Ron had overheard the conversation in the staff room and guessed the location of the Chamber after remembering a clue from one of Ginny's previous letters, James looked up sharply from where he had been examining the sword.
"Do you mean to tell me that you knew where the Chamber was, and what was in it, and didn't think to let anyone know?" his voice was tight, and Harry looked down sheepishly.
Before he could defend himself, Ron spoke up for the first time. "We did tell someone. We told this prat." He said, jerking his thumb at Lockhart, who was staring dreamily out the window towards the night sky.
"Ah, yes." Professor Dumbledore said. "Gilderoy, I was wondering when your part in this story would come up. May I ask why you allowed two young students to accompany you to the Chamber of Secrets?" Lockhart, still looking out the window, apparently engrossed in his own reflection, did not appear to hear him.
"Accompany?" Ron scoffed. "We practically had to force him along at wand point. He was planning on running away when we caught him. Then he tried a memory charm on us, and it backfired."
James looked incensed at Lockhart's cowardice, but Dumbledore merely raised one eyebrow at Ron. "Backfired, Mr Weasley?"
Ron blushed and looked down. "I, er – " he cleared his throat. "I sort of sat on my wand a few months ago, Professor, and it hasn't worked quite right since." His ears were now a fetching shade of scarlet.
Molly had a rather comical look on her face at the thought of her son actually sitting on his wand, while Sirius attempted to turn his bark-like laugh into a hasty cough.
"Ah, I see," Dumbledore said tactfully. "Carry on, Mr Potter."
Harry continued his story, frantically trying to think of a way to omit the fact that the Basilisk fang had stabbed him, yet still explain why the fang was in his hand to stab the diary. In the end, he decided that he was too tired to attempt to come up with an explanation, as he didn't think anyone would believe that the fang just fell out, and settled for the truth. Anyway, if everyone's expression was anything to go by, particularly Molly and his mother's, they could not really be any more horrified at what he had been through than they already were.
He was wrong. When he mentioned the fang piercing his arm, Molly shrieked, James looked ready to faint, and Lily threw herself out of her chair and wrapped him in a hug that could easily rival one of Molly Weasley's best. Once everyone had calmed down once more, Harry continued with his story, producing the diary from his pocket and placing it on the desk. He glanced at Ginny out of the corner of his eye as he did so, and was slightly alarmed to see that she had silent tears running down her face and looked utterly miserable. He had so far avoided mentioning Riddle's diary, or the fact that Ginny had actually opened the Chamber. What will they do to her? Harry thought in panic. Riddle's diary didn't work any more ... How could they prove that it had been he who'd made her do it all?
Instinctively, Harry looked at Dumbledore, who smiled faintly, the firelight glancing off his half-moon spectacles.
"What interests me most," said Dumbledore gently, "Is how Lord Voldemort managed to enchant Ginny, when my sources tell me he is currently in hiding in the forests of Albania."
Relief – warm, sweeping, glorious relief – swept over Harry.
"You Know Who?" Molly looked scandalised, and was holding onto Ginny's hand for dear life. "You mean that boy was – You Know Who was p-possessing Ginny?" Her voice was dangerously high and as Dumbledore solemnly inclined his head, she seemed to deflate into her chair, heedless of Arthur's comforting hand on her shoulder, though his own knuckles were white with tension.
Harry winced. He had kind of been hoping to avoid this part. Before he could respond, Ginny spoke up from beside him in a deadened voice.
"The diary. Tom Marvolo Riddle. When you rearrange the letters, it spells 'I am Lord Voldemort'."
There was a horrified silence as everyone digested this news, and Harry reached across and gripped Ginny's other hand comfortingly.
"Not many people know that Voldemort once attended Hogwarts under the name of Tom Riddle, fifty years ago," Dumbledore said, his voice grave. "Even those who knew him then, would not recognise the monster he became as the handsome young school boy he was."
Sirius and James looked disgusted at the idea of Voldemort ever being considered handsome.
"But how did he – "
"How did he possess your daughter?" Arthur winced slightly at Dumbledore's phrasing, but nodded.
"I believe that Voldemort was – feeding, if you will, off the energy young Ginevra was spending writing in this diary." Dumbledore peered down at Ginny with a questioning look, and Ginny nodded, her eyes on the floor.
"I've been writing in the diary since Ron found it in his Transfiguration book. He gave it to me just before he left." Ron looked horrified at this, and Harry knew he would be blaming himself, though it was in no way his fault. "Tom wrote back. I thought it was just a spell, and he was so nice, and – and – and I was so stupid – " Ginny broke off, tears running down her face.
With a small sob, Molly enfolded her daughter in her arms, pulling her onto her lap.
"Oh, Ginny! It's not your fault. You couldn't have known – " Molly soothed Ginny, stroking her hair as she struggled to regain control.
"Your mother is right, Ginevra. Older and wiser wizards have been hoodwinked by Lord Voldemort. What has happened here is in no way your fault. Although I would advise that, should you find any more such objects, you bring them to my attention." Dumbledore's voice was kind, but Ginny still felt as though she was being admonished. Determined to show that she was not just a silly little girl, Ginny took a deep breath and composed herself, gently pulling away from her mother and settling back into her own chair. She caught Harry's eye and gave him a shaky smile. At least she wasn't going to be barred from going to Hogwarts next year.
"I think it might be best," Dumbledore said calmly, "If Miss Weasley is taken to the Hospital Wing. Bed rest and perhaps a large, steaming mug of hot chocolate. I always find that cheers me up," he smiled gently at her before turning to her parents. "Molly, Arthur, you are welcome to stay the night. Though I might suggest stopping past Gryffindor tower and informing your sons of the good news."
Everybody gave a small start at this. They had been so engrossed in the story, so relieved that everyone was safe, that they had forgotten that most of Ginny's brothers still believed her to be dead.
"Oh, yes! Of course! Ron, would you – " Molly looked pleadingly to her youngest son.
Ron cast a curious glance at Harry before getting to his feet. "Yeah, sure Mum."
"Mr Weasley, if you would take Professor Lockhart with you to the Hospital Wing? I think you will find that Madam Pomfrey is still awake. She's just administering the Mandrake Juice – I daresay the Basilisk's victims will be waking up any moment now."
At this, Harry saw Lily's head snap up, and he knew she was thinking of Hermione. Lily looked hesitant, unsure whether to stay with Harry, or be with Hermione as she woke. Harry caught her eye and smiled.
"Go, Mum. I'll be fine," he said. "And you'll have to tell Hermione what's happened. You know she'll have hundreds of questions." He glanced across at James, who was also looking hesitant. James caught Dumbledore's eye, and something seemed to pass between them.
"Lils, I'll stay with Harry," he said, getting up and embracing his wife reassuringly. "Tell Hermione I love her, and I'll be up soon."
Lily nodded and walked to the doorway where the Weasleys, Lockhart in tow, were waiting. Sirius, Katie and Remus seemed to be having a silent conversation. Just before Lily walked out, Remus and Katie stood.
"We'll come too," Remus said, before turning to Harry. "Harry, well done. It's probably best if you stay the night in the Hospital Wing too, so we'll wait for you up there." Remus squeezed his shoulder and Katie gave him a quick hug.
Once they had left, Dumbledore turned to McGonagall.
"I think this all merits a good feast, don't you Minerva? Might I ask you to go and alert the kitchens?"
Professor McGonagall nodded, the smallest smile gracing her mouth at the way Harry, James and Sirius had all perked up at the mention of a feast.
She left, and Dumbledore turned to the remaining three people seated before him.
"First of all Harry," said Dumbledore, his blue eyes twinkling as he took in the boy in front of him. "I want to thank you. You must have shown me real loyalty down in the Chamber. Nothing but that could have called Fawkes to you."
James and Sirius were both gazing in awe at the brilliant phoenix as it fluttered down to land on Dumbledore's knee, and Harry grinned awkwardly.
"And so you met Tom Riddle. I'm sure he would have been rather interested to meet you." James and Sirius both looked sharply at Dumbledore and Sirius opened his mouth to speak. Before he could, however, Harry interrupted him as something which had been nagging him came tumbling out of his mouth.
"He said I was like him. Strange likenesses, he said." Harry couldn't bear to look at anyone as he admitted it.
"And do you think you are like him?" Dumbledore asked, silencing James' refusal by raising his hand.
"No!" said Harry vehemently. "I don't think I'm anything like him. I could never – I mean, I'm a Gryffindor – " Harry broke off, suddenly overcome by doubt. Because the Sorting Hat hadn't wanted to put him in Gryffindor, had it?
"The Sorting Hat, it said – ," he paused, struggling to find the words and determined not to look at either his father or Sirius. "It said I would do well in Slytherin. It only put me in Gryffindor because I asked it to."
From the corner of his eye, Harry saw James' eyes widen in surprise, but his attention was soon recaptured by Dumbledore.
"Ah, and there is the crux of the matter," Dumbledore said. "For it is our choices which really determine who we are. And it is your choices Harry, which set you apart from Tom Riddle."
Harry was still unconvinced, and, seeing this, James came to stand behind him, resting his hands on Harry's shoulders.
"Harry, you are as unlike Voldemort as it is possible to be. You risked your own life to save Ginny tonight. Voldemort was the one trying to kill you both. I'm sure you can see how these actions are rather different." James' tone was light, but he squeezed Harry's shoulders gently to show his support.
"James is right. I've known you since you were born, Harry, and you're no evil wizard. I should know; I grew up with most of them." Sirius said.
Dumbledore's eyes were twinkling as he passed the sword to Harry from where it rested on the desk, and indicated for him to turn it over.
There, inscribed in a flowing script, was the name 'Godric Gryffindor".
"Only a true Gryffindor could have pulled this sword from the Sorting Hat, Harry," he said, as Harry, James and Sirius all stared, dumbstruck, at the sword. For a minute, none of them spoke. Then Dumbledore opened one of the drawers in McGonagall's desk and pulled out a piece of parchment and a quill.
"What you need, Harry, is a good night's rest," he said as he began to write. "Sirius, would you deliver this message to Azkaban? We need our game-keeper back."
Sirius nodded, and accepted the finished note from Dumbledore.
"And I must draft an advertisement for the Daily Prophet. It seems we are in need of a new Defence Against the Dark Arts Professor," Dumbledore continued, smiling genially at Harry and James as Sirius left. "Might I suggest that the two of you go to the Hospital Wing for some rest? I'm sure Miss Potter is awake and wanting to see you. If she has not already done so, ask Poppy Pomfrey to arrange some rooms for our guests, please James?"
Harry got up and crossed for the door with his father. He had just reached for the handle, however, when the door burst open so violently that it bounced back off the wall.
Lucius Malfoy stood there, fury in his face. Cowering under his arm, heavily wrapped in bandages, was Dobby.
Harry ignored the interactions between his father, Lucius and Dumbledore, too busy staring in shock at the house-elf. Dobby had appeared to him twice more during the school year, and each time, Harry had only narrowly avoided serious injury.
Harry looked up in time to see both his father and Malfoy practically spitting with fury, as Dumbledore held up the diary, still smoking slightly from the hole in the middle. But Harry's attention was once again claimed by the elf, as it was acting rather odd. His great eyes fixed meaningfully on Harry, he kept pointing to the diary, then at Mr Malfoy, and then hitting himself hard on the head with his fist.
"I see..." said Malfoy slowly to Dumbledore, though Harry had no idea what they were talking about.
"A clever plan," said Dumbledore in a level voice, still staring Mr Malfoy straight in the eye. "Because if Harry here – " Mr Malfoy shot Harry a swift, sharp look, "and his friend Ron hadn't discovered this book, why – Ginny Weasley might have taken all the blame. No one would ever be able to prove that she hadn't acted of her own free will ..."
James was looking murderously at Malfoy, and seemed to be only barely restraining himself from attacking him.
And suddenly, Harry understood. And as soon as he did, he felt like attacking Malfoy himself.
"Don't you want to know how Ginny got hold of that diary, Mr Malfoy?" said Harry.
Lucius Malfoy rounded on him.
"How should I know how the stupid little girl got hold of it?" he asked.
James drew his wand, but Harry broke in. "Because you gave it to her," he replied. "In Flourish and Blotts. Or I should say, you gave it to Ron. You picked up his old Transfiguration book, and slipped the diary inside it, didn't you?"
"Prove it." He hissed.
"Oh, no one will be able to do that," said Dumbledore, smiling at Harry and effectively cutting off James' angry retort. "Not now Riddle has vanished from the book. On the other hand, I would advise you, Lucius, not to go giving out any more of Lord Voldemort's old school things. If any more of them find their way into innocent hands, I think the Auror Department," he gave a small nod to James, who still stood with a menacing look on his face, wand raised. "And Arthur Weasley in particular, will make sure they are traced back to you..."
Lucius Malfoy stood for a moment, and Harry distinctly saw his right hand twitch, as though he was longing to go for his wand. Instead, he turned to his house-elf.
"We're going, Dobby!"
He wrenched open the door, and as the elf came hurrying up to him, he kicked him right through it. They could hear Dobby squealing with pain all the way along the corridor. Harry stood for a moment, thinking hard. Then it came to him.
"Professor, I think we should return the diary to Mr Malfoy, don't you?" James looked confused, but Dumbledore merely smiled and passed over the diary.
"I'll be right back," Harry called, as he hurried through the door, pulling of his shoe as he went. He could hear Dobby's squeals of pain receding round the corner. Wondering if his plan would work, Harry quickly took of his slimy, filthy sock, and stuffed the diary inside it. Then he ran down the dark corridor.
He caught up with them at the top of the stairs.
"Mr Malfoy," he gasped, skidding to a halt, "I've got something for you."
And he forced the smelly sock right into Lucius Malfoy's hand.
"What the – ?"
Malfoy ripped the sock off the old diary, threw it aside, and then looked furiously from the ruined book to Harry.
"Your time will come, Harry Potter," he said softly. "And this time, your parents won't be around to save you."
He turned to go.
"Come, Dobby. I said, come!"
But Dobby didn't move. He was holding up Harry's disgusting, slimy sock and looking at it as though it was a priceless treasure.
"Master has given Dobby a sock," said the elf in wonderment, and Harry felt a flash of triumph that his hasty plan had worked.
"Dobby – Dobby is free." The elf said in disbelief, a huge smile growing on his face.
Lucius Malfoy stood frozen, staring at the elf. Then he lunged at Harry.
"You've lost me my servant, boy!"
But Dobby shouted, "You shall not harm Harry Potter!"
There was a loud bang, and Malfoy was thrown backwards. He crashed down the stairs, three at a time, landing in a crumpled heap on the landing below. He got up, his face livid, and pulled out his wand, but Dobby raised a long threatening finger.
"You shall go now," he said fiercely, pointing down at Malfoy. "You shall not touch Harry Potter. You shall go now."
Lucius Malfoy had no choice. With a last, incensed stare at the pair of them, he swung his cloak around him and hurried out of sight.
"Harry Potter freed Dobby!" said the elf jubilantly, gazing up at Harry in adoration.
"Least I could do, Dobby," said Harry, grinning. "Just promise never to try to save my life again."
The elf's ugly brown face split suddenly into a wide, toothy smile.
"I've just got one question, Dobby," said Harry, as Dobby pulled on Harry's sock with shaking hands. "You told me all this had nothing to do with He Who Must Not Be Named, remember? Well – "
"It was a clue, sir," said Dobby, his eyes widening, as though this was obvious. "Dobby was giving you a clue. The Dark Lord, before he changed his name, could be freely named, you see?"
"Right," said Harry weakly. "Well, I'd better go. I have to see Ginny, and my sister should be awake by now ..."
Dobby threw his arms around Harry's middle and hugged him.
"Harry Potter is greater by far than Dobby knew!" he sobbed. "Farewell, Harry Potter!"
And with a final loud crack, Dobby disappeared. Harry walked back to the office feeling satisfied. Ginny was safe, Dobby was free, and Hermione was awake. He could go up to the Hospital Wing, maybe have a quick chat to Ginny to make sure she was alright, and then have a nice long rest. The Hogwart's Express would be leaving in three days. Maybe he could sleep till then.
A/N: By the way, just thought I'd mention that I'm still open to ideas for a new title, if anyone's got some suggestions.