A much happier group left the Chamber of Secrets than had gone into it, not all that long ago. McGonagall levitated Lockhart's prone body after neither teacher deemed him worth freeing from the body-bind. The entrance slid shut behind Fawkes, who was soon leading them along the dark tunnel, his wide scarlet wings emitting a soft golden glow in the darkness, his song sending warmth through all their hearts.
Even with his worry for Sirius, Harry was feeling like celebrating. They had defeated Riddle. They had finally rid the school of Slytherin's monster. He suspected his friends might still be angry at him for being left behind, and they certainly had a number of things to tell him, to explain how they had arrived in the Chamber in the nick of time, but for the moment, they were happy to joke and laugh. The Sorting Hat was being passed around between them, all too willing to join in with Fawkes' singing.
The only one who looked less than content with the situation was Snape. He wanted to know what had happened to Pettigrew, and would not allow for the possibility that they might have confused him for someone else.
"I recognised him, Minerva!" he all but snarled. "I've no doubt about it. It was him."
McGonagall's mood did dim a little. "You may be right," she conceded. "We saw him transform from his animagus form. He couldn't have been using any appearance altering magic on top of that – the animagus transformation would've prevented it…" Then she proceeded to fill Snape in on what had happened while he had been unconscious. As soon as she mentioned that there had been another person there, who was potentially Sirius Black, Harry watched Snape's already pinched expression grow darker than he had ever witnessed it. He knew things were about to become complicated for his godfather.
Snape insisted on an immediate search, much to McGonagall's chagrin, who argued that there was no conceivable reason why either Pettigrew or Black should still be around. Snape would not be deterred, however. He cast a spell, Homenum Revelio, which, McGonagall explained to a curious Hermione, revealed a human presence in the surrounding environment. When nothing happened, he remembered that Pettigrew had transformed from a rat.
"I don't know how to reveal an animagus," said Snape, looking intently at McGonagall.
With a sigh, their head of house lowered Lockhart's body to the ground, and then proceeded to cast a complicated-looking spell. "No rat animagus in the vicinity," she finally concluded.
"What about – the other one," said Snape. "Black, or whoever he is—"
"That's not how it works, Severus," she responded tiredly. "Even if indeed he's an animagus as well, if we don't know his animagus form, there's no way to track him. That's why you're supposed to register animagus forms," she groused.
Harry suppressed a sigh of relief at hearing this. Sirius still had an advantage, then.
Snape finally conceded that it was better to first return to the castle, before beginning a more thorough search. He did, however, cast a set of complicated spells on the way. Throughout the tunnel, translucent, gossamer-thin strands of light appeared, which he kept prodding with his wand.
"Professor, what are you doing?" asked Hermione.
"He's looking at magical traces," McGonagall explained instead of the engrossed Snape. "He's looking to see what sorts of spells have been cast here recently, and by whom."
"Oh!" said Harry, interested despite his concern for Sirius. "Are those our Lumos charms from before?"
Snape managed to match all traces to their wands, much to his disappointment. He then finally agreed to shelve the investigation for later.
The professors debated how to take them all up the pipes, until Fawkes waved his long golden tail feathers at them. The adolescents got to fly upwards through the pipes, carried by the phoenix. The adults followed not far behind, using their own magic, and levitating Lockhart between them.
Myrtle goggled at them, as they reassembled back on the wet floor of her bathroom, covered in slime, grime, blood (in McGonagall's case) and copious amounts of ink (in Harry's case), and watched the sink that was hiding the pipe slide back into place.
"You're alive," she said blankly to Harry.
"There's no need to sound so disappointed," he said grimly, wiping slime off his glasses.
"Oh, well… I'd just been thinking… if you had died, you'd have been welcome to share my toilet," said Myrtle, blushing silver.
"Urgh!" said Ron as they left the bathroom for the deserted corridor outside. "Harry! I think Myrtle's grown fond of you! I'll have to tell Ginny she's got competition when she wakes up."
They all followed Fawkes to McGonagall's office. She opened the door, to find the room already occupied. Professor Dumbledore was standing by the mantelpiece, beaming at them. There was a moment of silence, then Fawkes went whooshing past Harry's ear and settled on Dumbledore's shoulder.
They all followed in, preceded by Lockhart's levitated body. Then McGonagall went to her desk to lay the sword of Gryffindor upon it. Hermione did likewise with the Sorting Hat, and finally Harry added what remained of Riddle's diary as well.
"My dear Professor McGonagall, you look like you have quite the tale to tell," Dumbledore said to his deputy.
"We were snake hunting," said McGonagall. She sounded nothing short of smug about it. Her mood was glorious, and she looked invigorated – despite being the one most obviously covered in blood, not to mention all sorts of muck and grime.
Snape turned to Lockhart, before she could say much more. "I don't believe what we're about to discuss is suitable for Gilderoy's ears, don't you think?" he said. Then he proceeded to cast some non-verbal spells on him. No one stopped him.
McGonagall then began recounting to Dumbledore how Harry, Hermione and Ron had sought her out that morning after class to tell her about Moaning Myrtle being the victim of the basilisk. "I believe they were surprised I hadn't already known," she added with pursed lips – though there was a smile hiding at the corners of her mouth.
"Impossible, my dear, you don't look a day over fifty," said Dumbledore, his beard twitching.
Harry then told an abridged version of their trip to the Forbidden Forest, to question Aragog – without mentioning Sirius, of course. The mood became a little more serious when McGonagall went on to tell about the message they had found on the wall.
"I wonder which one of them the message referred to," muttered Snape under his breath, but did not interrupt.
Harry saw his friends share a look at that, and was ever more curious to hear what they had to tell him.
Dumbledore conjured them all seats, then drinks, as the tale went on. Snape took over from when he had run into them outside of the staff room, and in the gravest of tones told Dumbledore about running into Pettigrew, before being surprised by the possessed Lockhart and then stunned. Before the headmaster had fully absorbed this unexpected news, McGonagall proceeded to tell him about Sirius' appearance as well. This was followed by silence.
"I did wonder, Miss Granger, Mr Weasley," said McGonagall after a moment. "Not that I'm admonishing you – you proved most helpful, of course. But how did you get to the Chamber of Secrets?"
"I remembered the parseltongue word Harry used," said Ron at once. "I – I wanted to come along. It was my idea, I didn't want to be left behind, but Hermione followed along, when she couldn't convince me to stay."
Harry looked shrewdly at his friends. This obviously untrue explanation of Ron's brought to mind a similar tale of Hermione's after the troll attack in their first year. The difference was that this time he was not in the loop.
McGonagall looked disapproving, but accepted the explanation. "Well, thankfully you managed to avoid being attacked by Black," she said. She did make sure to mention that Sirius and Pettigrew had appeared to be fighting each other, rather than being conspiring together. This led the adults to speculate if the message on the wall about the traitorous servant referred to Sirius.
Dumbledore promised to have the school searched and to inform the authorities to a vehement Snape, before changing the topic by asking him if he was suffering any adverse effects from the stunner he had been subjected to. Snape looked like he wanted to lie, but reconsidered, admitting to a headache. After McGonagall had summoned a potion from her desk drawer for him, Dumbledore directed the conversation back to the recounting of events of the day. McGonagall went on to describe Riddle's appearance, followed by the basilisk, before she turned to Harry.
"I don't know how you recognised He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named in that apparition, Mr Potter. I have to say, I couldn't have been more surprised when that anagram was explained—"
"I believe I might be able to shed some light on that," said Dumbledore. "I've had a couple most interesting conversations with Mr Potter and his friends this year. Voldemort's past as Tom Riddle came up, as did his involvement in the happenings fifty years ago. I'm glad that we finally have closure, and a full explanation of what happened then – and now."
He walked over to the desk to look at the remains of the diary. He peered keenly down his long, crooked nose at its burnt and soggy pages. "Brilliant," he said softly. "Of course, he was probably the most brilliant student Hogwarts has ever seen."
"Very few people know that Lord Voldemort was once called Tom Riddle," he went on to explain. "I taught him myself, fifty years ago, at Hogwarts. He disappeared after leaving the school… travelled far and wide… sank so deeply into the dark arts, consorted with the very worst of our kind, underwent so many dangerous, magical transformations, that when he resurfaced as Lord Voldemort, he was barely recognizable. Hardly anyone connected Lord Voldemort with the clever, handsome boy who was once Head Boy here."
Snape had heard Voldemort's name once too often by then, and decided to finish the tale. He recounted how Fawkes had appeared and helped them defeat the basilisk, as well as Riddle's apparition.
"The git was so disappointed that you didn't switch sides," Ron told him. "What will Malfoy think when he hears of it?"
"At least that was after Pettigrew had left," added Harry. "And you were stunned for much of what happened before—" Harry stopped talking when he felt Hermione stomp on his foot. Looking at his friends, he realised she had done something similar to Ron to silence him. Only then did he notice the teachers' astonishment.
"Ah," said Dumbledore carefully, "are you concerned with Professor Snape's reputation in certain circles?"
"Riddle's memory made some unfortunate remarks," ground out Snape. "However, I'm sure I don't know what he was accusing me of," he added pointedly.
Harry and his friends raised their eyebrows at him, but he pretended to ignore them. Harry noticed Ron and Hermione had also not been able to suppress an eye-roll at Snape's blatant denial of his spying, not to mention the conversation they had had with him after potions class the previous day.
Dumbledore's eyes were twinkling merrily and he was clearly fighting a smile. "Well, be that as it may. You have all had a rather eventful day. And you, Severus, have been subjected to a stunning spell. Perhaps a visit to the hospital wing wouldn't go remiss. And, you know, Minerva, I think all this merits a good feast. We'll need to have another one, when the basilisk's victims wake up in a few days, but I believe this day deserves its own celebration. Might I ask you to go and alert the kitchens?"
Snape hesitated, looking at Lockhart. "What about him?"
Harry gave a start. He had completely forgotten about Lockhart.
"An interesting conundrum, that," said Dumbledore. "We can hardly keep him accountable for being possessed, even if Riddle was convinced that Gilderoy was happy with the arrangement. But Riddle also claimed Lockhart had used illegal memory charms on a number of people…"
McGonagall got up, moving to the door. "Right," she said crisply, "I'll leave you to deal with Gilderoy, shall I?"
"Certainly," said Dumbledore.
She left. After a moment's hesitation, Dumbledore lifted the spells cast on Lockhart. "Dear me, I've just been told the most fascinating tale, Gilderoy, one in which you played a rather pivotal role. Care to tell us your view of things?"
Lockhart remained silent for a long moment. Then, "I don't remember any of it," he said defiantly.
"Impaled upon your own sword, Gilderoy? How very tragic. Perhaps a visit to the hospital wing for you as well, then? I'm sure we can find something to jog your memory," Dumbledore said with a glance at Snape.
Snape got up, and after Dumbledore's renewed promise to contact the ministry about the not-so-dead marauders, he left with Lockhart in tow.
"It has been quite an eventful few weeks, since our last conversation," said Dumbledore. "I am glad I entrusted you three with as much information as I did. You certainly used it well," he went on, smiling. "You will receive another Special Award for Services to the School – and, of course, we'll have to remove Riddle's award – now that you've conclusively proved that he didn't deserve it."
Ron went as brightly pink as Lockhart's valentine flowers, while Hermione looked like she wanted to hide herself behind her hair, arms, and even her knees.
"What you need after the day you've had is some good food and sleep," said Dumbledore. "I suggest you go down to the feast, Ron, Hermione. And of course Harry can follow in a moment, as well. But first, I'd like a few more words with him…"
"I – I don't have secrets from them, Professor," said Harry at once. He had allowed his friends to be excluded once already that day – and had come to regret it. He would stand up for them, even to the headmaster.
"And you're welcome to share everything we discuss with them," Dumbledore said gently.
Harry would have argued further, but Hermione got up, gesturing for Ron to do likewise. "We'll see you downstairs, Harry," she said, and then they both shuffled out of the room.
Dumbledore began by thanking the suddenly unaccountably nervous Harry for the loyalty he had shown the headmaster in the Chamber, that had called Fawkes to him. He stroked the phoenix sitting on his knee, eyes twinkling again. Harry grinned awkwardly.
"And so you met Tom Riddle," said Dumbledore thoughtfully. "I imagine he was most interested in you…"
Suddenly, something that was nagging at Harry came tumbling out of his mouth. "Professor Dumbledore… Riddle said I'm like him. Strange likenesses, he said…"
"Did he, now?" said Dumbledore, looking thoughtfully at Harry from under his thick silver eyebrows. "And what do you think, Harry?"
"I don't think I'm like him!" said Harry, more loudly than he'd intended. "I mean, he also thought Snape was a bit like him, and Snape's at least a Slytherin, but I'm – I'm in Gryffindor, I'm…" But he fell silent, a lurking doubt resurfacing in his mind. "Professor," he started again after a moment. "The Sorting Hat told me I'd – I'd have done well in Slytherin. Everyone thought I was Slytherin's heir for a while… because I can speak Parseltongue…"
"You can speak parseltongue, Harry," said Dumbledore calmly, "because Lord Voldemort – who is the last remaining descendant of Salazar Slytherin – can speak parseltongue. Unless I'm much mistaken, he transferred some of his own powers to you the night he gave you that scar. Not something he intended to do, I'm sure…"
"Voldemort put a bit of himself in me?" Harry said, thunderstruck.
"It certainly seems so."
"I'm not like him," reiterated Harry. "I don't hate my relatives because they're muggles – Not that I like them, but I have good reasons – And even if I have some of Slytherin's powers, that doesn't mean I have to be like him – the Sorting Hat told me so—"
"Exactly," said Dumbledore, beaming once more. "The Sorting Hat can be relied upon to know such things. It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities."
"Or our ancestors," added Harry.
For a minute, neither of them spoke. Then Dumbledore pulled open one of the drawers in Professor McGonagall's desk and took out a quill and a bottle of ink, to write letters to the ministry about Sirius and Peter Pettigrew, as well as an advertisement for the Daily Prophet for a new defence against the dark arts teacher. He was suggesting to Harry that he should go down to the feast as well, when the door burst open so violently that it bounced back off the wall.
They then had to contend themselves with a furious Lucius Malfoy, who had been informed that the other eleven governors of the school had reconsidered dismissing Dumbledore from the post of the headmaster after all. Just hearing about another message appearing had apparently been enough to frighten them into acting, even though no one had actually been reported missing.
Dobby, who had tagged along, because he was still shining Malfoy's shoes, did his best to gesture between the diary and his owner, confirming what Harry had already figured out: that Malfoy had slipped Ginny the diary in Flourish and Blott's. Harry made sure to point this out to Malfoy, and had the vindictive pleasure of watching his white hands clench and unclench, and almost reach for his wand when Dumbledore threatened him against trying such a thing ever again.
This was nothing against the joy Harry felt after he had managed to free Dobby from Malfoy, just a short while later, with the help of the destroyed diary.
After Malfoy had wisely made himself scarce, 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 would have gone to the feast after that – he was indeed hungry, not to mention tired – but his friends suddenly appeared in front of him – throwing off his invisibility cloak – and rushed over to him.
"Harry, come on, you have to hurry," said Hermione, urging him to take the cloak and the Marauders' Map from her.
"Sirius is waiting outside," said Ron. "Come on, we'll explain on the way."
Harry, beginning to worry, but still bewildered, let his friends lead him down the dark corridor.
"I sent him a letter with Hedwig, to warn him that the aurors are about to start looking for him – something he should've guessed was bound to happen, after he let himself be seen," griped Hermione. "He sent her back right away – he was still far too close to the school, so Hedwig was back in no time – I don't know what he was thinking—"
"He wrote he's waiting for you in Hagrid's hut, Harry," said Ron. "We'll cover for you at the feast, we'll say you were too tired—"
But Harry did not hear any more of the excuses his friends would be making for him. He ran, barely taking the time to cover himself with the invisibility cloak.
Padfoot greeted him with a happy bark, but Harry was worried and annoyed. "Sirius! What were you thinking? You know they saw you! Snape's going ballistic! And now Dumbledore is writing to the ministry, and—"
Sirius transformed mid-rant, not looking particularly worried himself. "Yes, I guessed that would happen. That's why I wanted to see you so soon, before the aurors get here. As you probably guessed by now, Pettigrew is still on the loose—"
"Well, no surprise there. He's been living in that Chamber all year, getting in and out without going through the castle – we never spotted him on the map—"
"Yes," sighed Sirius. "He fled through a tiny hole in the wall – and I didn't dare blast through those old walls."
"Which you could've guessed would happen. So why did you turn up? Why did you let yourself be seen?" Harry thought with a bittersweet longing of the vague idea he had had of the summer ahead, of spending it as he had the previous one – chasing around Snuffles together with Dudley. "It's not like I was going alone! I listened to you – I told the teachers—"
"Because you and those teachers were dealing excellently with Lockhart when we got there," Sirius cut across his rant. "And I wasn't about to let Hermione and Ron walk into danger by themselves. Harry, rescuing you will always be worth the danger. I received a letter from Lockhart, asking me to meet him, about the investigations I had been doing about him. I didn't like it. There was something about it—"
"He knew it was you?" asked Harry.
"Exactly. I found that strange as well – not the most likely guess, was it? But then I thought of Peter. He was the only one who knew I was alive – except for you and your friends. But if he was working together with Lockhart… Do you see why I couldn't just ignore it?"
"I think it was a trap, actually," said Harry. "Lockhart kept saying something about me interfering, and him having to improvise."
"Well, even better. And then, when I found Ron and Hermione—"
"What, walking into a trap would've been alright?" began Harry, but then he thought of something else. "Wait, did Moaning Myrtle see you?"
"No, don't worry. I know how to avoid being seen by ghosts. Really, Harry, I've had quite a lot of practice sneaking in and out of Hogwarts—" He shook his head at his godson's unamused face. "It was worth the risk. Don't you see? I couldn't possibly have left you to fend for yourself against Peter and Lockhart."
"But now Pettigrew knows he was seen. He'll try harder to hide. He might leave the country, he might try to put all the blame on you—"
"Pettigrew transformed into a rat in front of McGonagall – didn't she see?"
"Yes…" said Harry.
"So he's now known to be an animagus. The aurors will make sure to guard against that. He can't apparate out of the country, and now the aurors will stop him from crossing the channel in his animagus form as well – if they're at all competent—"
"Well, the same goes for you."
"No one's seen me turn into Padfoot," said Sirius unconcernedly. "Even if they guess that I might be an animagus as well—"
"Yes, Snape did – right away, actually—"
"Even so, they don't know what animal I turn into, so it won't do them all that much good – very useful thing, being an animagus. No, I don't think what happened was such a bad thing," mused Sirius. "I let the situation with Pettigrew go on for much too long. Him being searched by the ministry is actually a very good thing—"
Harry scoffed. He was aware of the irony of the situation, of the fact that for the first time, he was the one admonishing Sirius for getting himself into danger, rather than the other way around, but he was too annoyed by his godfather's lack of concern to let that stop him. "Sirius, you're not even worried! The aurors are going to be looking for you, Snape was talking about searching the castle for you right away, and here you are—"
"Alright, alright, you're worried. I get that," Sirius said finally, looking a bit more serious. "I have every intention to be careful, I promise. And that's why I didn't come back after Peter fled," he went on, before Harry could interrupt again. "I hid and watched my map of Hogwarts instead. I have to say, I did begin to get worried – it took you lot a fair amount of time to get back up. But once I saw that you had Lockhart with you—"
"Lockhart? Wait. Oh." The realisation came over Harry suddenly. "You thought the danger was past? With Lockhart knocked out and Pettigrew having fled, you might've thought that… Yeah, well, that's not exactly how it was…" After that, Harry began to recount the day's events for the second time that evening, to an ever more distraught Sirius.
"Merlin, and after all that you're talking about my safety… How could I have waited for that long? I should've come back, I should've made sure—"
"No, you shouldn't have! McGonagall was attacking you! Or didn't you notice that? And Snape would've done the same, and then Riddle's basilisk would've had us for dinner!"
Sirius buried his face in his hands. After a long moment, he nodded, conceding Harry's point. "I want to see it," he finally said.
He meant the dead basilisk. Harry resisted, tried to argue that it was too dangerous, that Snape – and others – might be looking for him. But Sirius would not hear of it. He began to explain how tracking spells worked, what their limitations were. Harry only half listened, but once he saw on the map that every adult was at the feast, he agreed reluctantly.
They went to the third-floor bathroom under Harry's cloak, Sirius transformed into Padfoot. After Sirius had flushed Myrtle down the toilet – something Harry found appalling – they went in, and Harry once again opened the entrance. Only when he noticed the odd look Sirius was giving him, did he remember that he had never actually discussed his ability to talk to snakes with Sirius.
Without saying a word, he slid down the pipes once more and they walked through the tunnel in eerie silence. Harry opened the serpent door. The basilisk was still where they had left it, unsurprisingly. It seemed even bigger somehow, now that he could take the time to stare at it at his heart's content.
Sirius' breath caught. Mesmerised, he walked all the way to the carcass, stopping in front of the head, where McGonagall had cut a large slit through its neck. Harry began to recount the details of the fight, how Fawkes had pierced its eyes, how McGonagall had pulled the sword of Gryffindor from the Sorting Hat—
Sirius' hand on his shoulder stopped him. "You fought this thing—" he began, but his voice wavered, and he broke off.
"Riddle's memory was the real danger," said Harry. He felt the need to comfort Sirius, but was not sure how. "He was controlling the basilisk with parseltongue. I…" He was uncomfortable speaking about it, but pushed on. "I actually thought about doing the same, but I knew, somehow, that it wouldn't work. With other snakes, when I talk to them, I know that they'll do what I tell them – it's…" He was unsure how to explain.
"You of all people being a parselmouth," Sirius muttered. He shook his head and did not comment any further.
Suddenly, what had been nagging at Harry since his talk with Dumbledore came tumbling out of his mouth. "Dumbledore told me that Voldemort transferred some of his powers to me when he – when he gave me the scar. And that's why I'm a parselmouth."
Sirius' hand closed convulsively on Harry's shoulder, then he took a step back, and finally looked away from the basilisk in order to face Harry. Sirius was not much for comforting either, it turned out, because instead of empty reassurances, he chose to tell Harry about the prophecy concerning him and Voldemort.
The eerie, greenish light of the Chamber made sharing a secret of that magnitude a singular experience. Harry thought he ought to feel dejected, but instead, all he felt was the mystery of the unknown.
"I don't know the text of the prophecy," Sirius said with a heavy heart. "Only that it spoke of someone defeating Voldemort and that the evil piece of – er, that he believed it enough to go after you."
"Riddle asked me how I survived," said Harry after a moment. "I told him what Dumbledore had told me – that my mum sacrificed herself to protect me. Dumbledore told me that last year, after Voldemort said that he only killed my mother because she tried to stop him from killing me. He wouldn't tell me why, though. Not until I was older. I'd kind of forgotten – well, not really forgotten, but I kind of accepted that Voldemort wants to kill me and that's that…"
"You think you'd be better off not knowing about the prophecy?" asked Sirius. He was frowning, and the dim light was casting deep shadows over his face.
Harry considered this carefully. "I'm not sure," he finally said. "It is a lot… But it means I might actually have a chance to win against him, doesn't it?"
Sirius smiled. In the dim chamber, he was the brightest point. "You've been doing pretty well so far, I'd say." Without another look at the basilisk, he turned towards the entrance. "Let's get out of here."
The end of the week brought more happy news. The mandrakes were finally ready to be stewed. When it was time to treat the petrified victims of the basilisk, Harry and Hermione followed the Weasley children to the hospital wing, where their parents were already waiting next to Ginny's bed. Mr and Mrs Creevey were also there, together with a young boy who looked a lot like Colin, huddled together in a corner next to their son's bed, looking uncomfortable and out of place in their muggle clothing.
Mrs Weasley swept Ron into a tight embrace, followed by Harry and Hermione. She and Mr Weasley had apparently been told some of what the three friends had got up to. Then, the Creeveys approached them hesitantly as well. Harry was not sure how much they had been told – or understood – but they knew whom they had to thank for freeing the school of the danger that had hurt their son.
Madam Pomfrey came around with the mandrake potion. Once the potion had been administered, it took no time at all for Ginny to open her eyes. While her parents huddled around her, half crying, half laughing, Harry and Hermione walked over to Hagrid's bed, narrowly avoiding Filch and his cat. Hagrid was disoriented at first, and they filled him in on what had happened. Then they – and Hagrid – thanked Nearly Headless Nick for his brave rescue.
"Ron, your wand!" Harry heard Mrs Weasley's sudden exclamation.
Turning around, he saw his friend had drawn his wand and his whole family was staring at it in astonishment. Except Ginny. She had a desolate look on her face, and tears were streaming down her cheeks.
While Ron had his family's attention, stumbling over an explanation for the origins of his wand, Hermione went to talk to Ginny. Harry followed.
"I just told Mum how I began to notice that something was wrong with me. I told her about noticing Ron's new wand," said a teary Ginny.
Hermione tried her best to reassure her, but Ginny's face only crumbled further. Then she drew her own wand with shaking hands. "Tom told me it was just like his," she whispered, then had to suppress a sob.
"What do you mean, like his?" asked a perplexed Hermione.
"It's yew and phoenix feather – just like his!" she repeated. "I – I'll have to ask Mum to buy me another wand—"
Harry shook his head. "I wouldn't worry about it, Ginny," he told her. "It chose you. Never mind Riddle." Then he told her and Hermione about his own wand's connection to Voldemort's wand. Ginny looked a lot more hopeful after hearing it. Her tears had all but dried.
Harry hung around with the Weasley family for a little while longer, taking turns playing exploding snap with Ginny, carefully answering Mr and Mrs Weasley's questions, and listening to the twins complain about their upcoming exams – and how unfair it was that the first years' exams had been cancelled.
"Stop it, you two," said Mrs Weasley, who was not amused by this. "With two first year students petrified – including your sister—"
"Well, why wouldn't they cancel our exams, too?" said an unrepentant Fred. "We've suffered a tremendous – tremendous – amount of mental anguish this year—"
Percy was the one not amused by this. He shouted at his brothers, telling them what horror that would have been, with his NEWTs only a year away—
Harry had to admit he was also disappointed, like the twins. He wished the school governors had agreed to cancel all their exams, but at least Hermione was happy – and had spent the entire week cramming and forcing Ron and Harry to do the same.
Once the elder Weasleys had left, and Harry and his friends were walking back to their dorms, Ron turned pensive. "Malfoy slipped Ginny that diary because of Dad's raid on his manor. What a horrible git he is! Putting us all in danger – Ginny, of course, but you even more so, Harry – and just because he was mad at Dad! It was lucky Dobby guessed that Riddle would come after you." He sounded apologetic.
"I don't think it was luck," sighed Harry. His friends had forgiven him for leaving them behind and going along by himself with McGonagall and Snape, had swept away his apology and told him that they understood. And yet, he was still aware of the unfairness of the situation. His friends had saved him, even though everyone expected him to do better, everyone entrusted him with more – whether it was McGonagall and Snape taking him along to the Chamber of Secrets, or Dumbledore personally discussing his meeting with Riddle. But the more he thought about it, the more he wanted to be like his not-so-famous best friends.
With a fortifying breath, Harry began to tell Ron and Hermione about the prophecy.
The exams went surprisingly well. Harry was aware that he was not as well prepared as he had been the year before, but neither were most other students, and most teachers took that into account. Professor Snape, on the other hand, had 'warned' them that he would not let them get away with their "usual level of idiocy," as he put it, because he was aware that they had successfully brewed polyjuice potion that year. The exam was hard, but Harry had made sure to prepare for it, and he felt he had done reasonably well.
The defence against the dark arts exam was taken by Dumbledore, because Lockhart had not been seen since their return from the Chamber of Secrets. Harry and his friends were pleased to note that their duelling practice had paid off, and they could do all the required spells – and a fair few besides. They were not the only ones, either. Neville sought them out after the exam and thanked them for including him in their training, which had brought his mark up considerably.
No one failed that year. This once again included Draco Malfoy's brutish friends Crabbe and Goyle.
After the exams were finished, Harry and his friends learned what had become of Lockhart. Aurors met with them to question them. There were several who had appeared on Hogwarts grounds the day after the basilisk had been killed, but they had stayed away from the students, searching for traces of Sirius' magic – as well as Pettigrew's. It was only with their exams behind them that the headmaster had allowed them to talk to the students. One auror trainee in particular – a young woman with violently pink hair, named Tonks – had been concerned with questions about Lockhart.
Auror Trainee Tonks told them that Lockhart had been questioned via veritaserum. The questioning itself could not be used as evidence in court, but the information they had gained had helped them to track down people whose memories Lockhart had modified, or who had witnessed such. Apparently Lockhart had claimed that someone had been investigating him – hounding him, as he had put it. And indeed, Tonks had tracked down people who remembered having very interesting conversations with strangers about Lockhart, but the strangers they described had all looked different. As for Lockhart's claim that the mystery person investigating him had somehow been connected to Harry – Tonks stated outright that she did not believe there was any truth to it, but she apologetically told Harry that she had still been obliged to follow up on it.
"I don't know why he hates me so much," said Harry, and it was almost the truth. "But why do you think he made that up?" he asked Tonks, hoping that she was not on to Sirius.
"I don't think he did…" said the auror trainee. "I do think he really believes that. My theory is that that creepy memory in the diary that possessed him convinced him there was this mystery investigator, sent by you, to gain his cooperation…"
The other aurors questioned Harry and his friends a bit about seeing Sirius and Pettigrew, but they were not expecting the second-year students to know much of anything, and focused much more on the adult witnesses.
Reassured that Sirius was relatively safe for the moment, Harry happily attended the end of year feast with his friends. Their new Award for Special Services to the School once again took centre stage. Several students who had suspected him of being the heir of Slytherin, Justin among them, hurried over to him to apologise. Dumbledore announced that Lockhart would not be returning next year, because the wizengamot had found him guilty of an astonishing number of crimes and he had been sent to azkaban. (This had made the front-page news in the Daily Prophet for several days in a row, despite the whole issue of the escaped supposed mass-murderer Sirius Black being found alive.)
It was a grand feast, despite Ravenclaw winning the House Cup – they being the students least distracted away from studying, even with an ancient monster haunting the school. Harry suspected it might have been even grander, though, if not for the search for Sirius and Pettigrew.
"What do you reckon, should we try to win the House Cup next year?" he asked his friends.
Ron thought about it for a moment, next to an enthusiastically nodding Hermione. "Might be a nice change. I wouldn't mind putting Malfoy in his place," he conceded.
The rest of the final term passed in a haze of blazing sunshine. Life at Hogwarts was back to normal. Lucius Malfoy had been sacked as a school governor. Draco was no longer strutting around the school as though he owned the place. On the contrary, he looked resentful and sulky. On the other hand, Ginny Weasley was perfectly happy again. The exam results came, with both Harry and Ron having passed with good marks. Hermione once again had the best marks of their year.
On the eve of their departure from Hogwarts, Harry once again sneaked out of the castle to meet with Sirius, as they had agreed. To be safe, they had severely cut back on communicating via owl post – something Harry found surprisingly difficult to adjust to – writing to Sirius about all his problems was something he had become very attached to. But Sirius had promised a safer way to keep in touch.
When they met, Sirius handed Harry a mirror, which he explained used to belong to James Potter. Harry carefully took the two-way mirror from his godfather and added it to the small number of treasures he had inherited from his father.
"Oh, by the way, Harry," Sirius said. "You remember Mrs Figg? She lives in the neighbourhood of Privet Drive—"
"Er, sure. My aunt and uncle used to leave me with her when they didn't want to take me along somewhere."
"Did you know she's a squib?" At Harry's astonished face, Sirius laughed his usual bark-like laugh. "Not only that, but she used to know your parents – and quite a few other people you know." He left his godson with this to contemplate.
Too soon, it was time for the journey home on the Hogwarts Express. Harry, Ron, Hermione, Fred, George, and Ginny got a compartment to themselves. They made the most of the last few hours in which they were allowed to do magic before the holidays. They played exploding snap, set off the very last of Fred and George's Filibuster fireworks, and chatted about the upcoming summer holidays.
Harry was not dreading his return to the muggle world. He had a two-way mirror to talk to Sirius, a bunch of questions for his old acquaintance, Mrs Figg, and he was especially looking forward to seeing Dudley again. The last letter he had received from his cousin deserved a heartfelt response in person.