AUTHOR'S NOTES: It's the Return to the Chamber of Secrets! Also, Voldemort croaks and Hermione and Malfoy decide they're better off as friends.

Chapter 8


As Harry sat at the Gryffindor table for dinner that evening, he looked at Hermione a moment before asking, "Why Malfoy?"

Hermione carefully set her fork down and replied, "I'm not in love with him, Harry."

"You're not?" Harry asked, doubtfully. "Then that was a hell of a kiss earlier."

Hermione's expression turned stony and she simply went back to eating dinner quickly before getting up and hurrying out of the hall. When she reached the staircase, she stopped and slowly sat down, standing up quickly when she heard someone calling her name. "Who's there?"

"It's me, Hermione," Harry said, taking his best friend's hand. After a few moments, he and Hermione sat on the steps again. "I'm sorry," he said, sincerely. "For what I said earlier."

"I don't love Draco Malfoy," Hermione said, quietly. When she heard Harry's slight sigh of relief, she added, "But he is a friend."

"Hermione, after everything he's done…" Harry said, looking at Hermione even though she couldn't look at him. "After everything he's said… How can you…?" But Harry couldn't think of how to properly phrase his thoughts.

"Because Malfoy understands how it feels, Harry," Hermione said, simply. "When you and the Weasleys look at me… you see someone helpless. Malfoy doesn't. I'm still me, Harry. And I know you all want to help and I appreciate that. But I need to learn how to do things on my own."

"You're my best friend, Hermione," Harry said, turning a bit so he was facing her more. "I want to understand what you're going through. I want to help you."

Hermione turned in Harry's direction and put a hand on his shoulder. "Thanks, Harry."

"Harry!"

Turning to the doors to the Great Hall, Harry saw Ginny looking pale and frantic. "Ginny? What's wrong?"

"You better come see," Ginny said, urgently.

Getting to his feet, Harry took Hermione's hand and they hurried back into the hall and towards the crowd that was gathering a bit off of the Gryffindor table. Pushing through the mob, Harry saw Hedwig sitting on the table but it was what she had pinned down that had everyone backing away nervously. A small snake, about 2 feet long was pinned beneath Hedwig's talons and sharp nips from the owl's beak kept the snake in line as it wriggled. Harry wasn't sure whether or not to try and grab the snake. This seemed to be one of the baby anacondas which meant that it wasn't venomous but it probably wasn't a good idea to get bit in either case.

Feeling something icy cold behind him, Harry turned to see Moaning Myrtle hovering behind him. "Myrtle," Harry said in surprise. "What are you doing here?"

"There's more of those horrible things—" Myrtle said, pointing at the young anaconda. "—slithering around my bathroom."

Harry looked around and caught Ron's eye. The two hurried out of the Great Hall as fast as they could. Out in the Entrance Hall, Harry quickly related his theory. "That big anaconda must have been the one to kill the giant squid. Then it slithered into the Chamber of Secrets from some entrance far beneath the lake."

"Harry, you're not seriously thinking of going back down there, are you?" Ron said in disbelief. "That snake'll kill you."

"What do you want me to do, Ron?" Harry snapped. "We have to stop that thing. It's not a basilisk. It can't kill us by looking at us."

"No, it can just squeeze the life out of us and swallow us whole!" Ron protested. "You really think we have any sort of chance against something like that?"

"Not alone," Harry said, going back into the Great Hall. When he came back out, he had Malfoy and Neville in tow.

Ron was stunned but seeing the determined look on Harry's face, he sighed and followed the group up the stairs to Moaning Myrtle's bathroom. "Harry, you better stay here," Ron said, looking at Harry's legs and prosthetics. "We can go a lot quicker than you can."

"And which of you will be speaking Parseltounge?" Harry asked, looking at Neville, Malfoy, and Ron. Seeing the looks from the others, he said, "Look, I may be a bit slower right now but without me you lot can't even get into the entrance."

"Harry, you know Hermione will kill all three of us if we let anything happen to you," Malfoy pointed out. "And since she's only just stopped hating me, I'm rather keen on you staying alive."

Harry nodded and as he walked into the bathroom he had a sense of déjà vu as he stood next to the sink that hid the entrance. "Open for the tongue of Slytherin," Harry hissed before taking a few steps back as the sink lowered into the floor, exposing the dark, dank tunnel that was the entrance to the Chamber of Secrets.

One at a time, they all jumped down the hole, sliding through the tunnel before landing in a dirty, bone-filled chamber.

When Harry landed, it took him a moment to get to his feet. When Malfoy helped him up, Harry gave him a nod. "Thanks."

"No problem," Malfoy replied as they headed further into the Chamber.

The going was slow and even with the cane, Harry found it hard to walk on the uneven ground and climb through the circular stone portholes. When they came to the entrance to the main chamber, Harry turned to the others. "Wands out," he said, simply as he took his own advice. After opening the door, Harry went through first and slowly climbed down the short ladder to the stone floor below.

As he took a few steps away from the entrance, Harry noticed that the chamber didn't look much different. Except there was the skeleton of a basilisk at the far end of the chamber.

"You certainly pick the most delightful spots, Potter," Malfoy said as he started down the walkway. "Really lovely place, this."

"Just be grateful the basilisk is dead, Malfoy," Ron said as he headed down the walkway behind Malfoy.

"Harry!" Neville exclaimed, whirling around and pointing his wand at the water. When Harry came over to where Neville was standing, Neville said, "I saw something in the water."

"I believe you," Harry said, quietly as he looked around. Deciding to try Parseltounge, he said, "We don't want to hurt you. Where are you?"

There were several tense minutes of dead quiet before Harry heard a soft, hissing voice. "I smell venom on you, humans," the anaconda replied, her voice echoing around the stone. "You know the deadly power of my cousins. But if you do not leave, you will feel a crushing death. My babies will flourish in this castle and they will be safe for years to come. They will grow large and powerful and you will never be able to stop them!"

Harry looked around, trying to get a fix on where the snake was. Deciding that talking to the snake was the best way to pinpoint its location, Harry spoke in Parseltounge again.

Neville looked both scared and curious as he listened to Harry speak in the language of snakes. But as Harry spoke, Neville started towards one of the side passageways as he heard what sounded like something sliding across the stone. "Harry, keep it going," Neville said, feeling braver. After all, he'd faced a rattlesnake and lived to tell about it. And this snake didn't have venom. Following the sounds he was hearing, Neville heard footsteps behind him but didn't turn to look. Suddenly, he turned the corner and saw the snake curled up in a deep puddle of murky water.

"Bloody hell," Ron whispered, looking at the huge snake.

Malfoy took a step back at the anaconda raised its head and started towards them. "Anyone got any other bright ideas?" he asked, his wand suddenly feeling like nothing more that a useless piece of wood.

"Door's behind you, Malfoy," Ron said, raising his wand. But as he ran through every spell he'd ever learned, he was coming up blank of what to use that wouldn't piss the giant snake off further. After a few moments, he said, "Cover me."

To everyone's surprise, Ron dove for the snake and grabbed it's head but he immediately regretted the decision when he felt how muscular the snake was. The snake threw coils around him and Ron looked wildly at Malfoy, Neville, and Harry as he tried to keep the snake's mouth away from his flesh. "Help me!"

Neville tried to pull the snake off of Ron but even with Malfoy's help, he was only just able to loosen the anaconda's coils. Turning to look at Harry, Neville caught a glimpse of a silvery stag cantering away before Harry joined the fray. "Will you tell the bloody thing to let go of Ron?!" Neville exclaimed as the anaconda's tail thrashed about.

But Harry didn't say anything in English or Parseltounge. His scar had suddenly flared with pain and as he staggered back, tripping on the uneven stone, Harry had a horrifying thought: Voldemort was in the Chamber of Secrets with them! "Who's the fastest runner?" After a seconds, he shouted, "Someone's got to lead the snake off!"

Ron and Neville exchanged looks but it was Malfoy who volunteered. "What do you need me to do?" Malfoy asked, looking at Harry.

"Ron, Neville, when I say so, let go of the snake," Harry instructed, getting slowly to his feet and trying to ignore the searing pain in his scar. "Malfoy, run back to the main chamber."

"You're going to try and wear it out," Neville deduced.

"Something like that," Harry muttered. Once Malfoy moved to the exit and Ron and Neville moved out of the anaconda's line of vision, Harry shouted, "Now!"

Ron let go of the snake and went limp as the snake slithered off of him and towards Malfoy who bolted for the main chamber. Once free of the snake, Ron and the others followed, stopping when they saw Malfoy lying motionless on the ground. And standing over him was Lord Voldemort.

"Harry Potter," Voldemort said, quietly as he saw Harry move so that he was in front of Ron and Neville. "How good to see you again."

Harry didn't move but his eyes were darting around wildly. Where was the anaconda?! As quietly as he could, he whispered, "Ron, Neville…Get out of here."

"We're not leaving you, Harry," Ron replied, stubbornly.

"Surely you're not leaving now?" Voldemort said, withdrawing his wand. "But I've only just arrived." Pointing his wand at Harry who was trying to back up a bit, he shouted, "Avada kedavr—" Something surged out of the water and knocked Voldemort off his feet. The anaconda had the Dark Lord in a vicious grip and quickly the huge snake threw its massive coils around Voldemort, squeezing tightly. "Avada…" Voldemort gasped out but his wand had fallen and every time he tried to take a breath the snake's grip tightened. With a last shuddering gasp, Voldemort felt his body weaken before everything went black.

Harry, Ron, and Neville stared, horror-struck as the snake loosened its coils ever so slightly as it moved so that its head was next to Voldemort's head. Opening its jaws wide and turning sideways a bit, the anaconda slowly started to devour the Dark Lord.

While the snake worked on digesting her meal, Harry, Ron, and Neville ran to Malfoy and knelt down next to him. From what they could tell he seemed to still be breathing and after a few moments, decided to get him out of the chamber while the anaconda was busy.

-------------

A sharp burst of pain brought Malfoy back into consciousness and as his vision started to focus he smiled as he saw a most beautiful sight. Hermione's unfocused eyes blazed with anger, but there was the slightest hint of worry. The fire which had been absent since Hermione had become blind was back with a vengeance and Malfoy couldn't help a soft chuckle when he saw it. But instead of being Happy, Hermione promptly hit him again. "OWWW!" Malfoy cried out as he sat up. "What was that for?!"

"You almost died!" Hermione said, her eyes shining with tears.

"I'm still here," Malfoy said, calmly. After a few moments, he said, "Hermione, I do like you. Very much, actually…"

"Wait," Hermione said, quickly. When she didn't hear any protest from Malfoy, she said, "You've been a tremendous help to me, Malfoy. And I never thought you and I would become friends."

"But that's all we'll ever be… isn't it?" Malfoy finished, regretfully.

Hermione nodded, sadly. "Harry and I have been talking."

To Malfoy, those words hurt more than when Hermione had hit him. But he nodded and took Hermione's hand. When she finally gave a weak smile, Malfoy smiled back and gave Hermione's hand a squeeze. "Just do me one favor, Hermione," Malfoy said, looking into Hermione's eyes. When she nodded, he said, "Tell Harry that next time he gets the bloody brilliant idea to go after a 30-foot killer snake he's on his own."

Hermione laughed and nodded before giving Malfoy a kiss on the cheek. Slowly she got up and made her way to the door of the hospital wing.