By the time they finally arrived at The Burrow, Harry was nearly done in. The stress from the unexpected confrontation with the Grangers was bleeding off, and there was little he wanted to do besides have a bit of a kip before dinner.
Of course, his plans didn’t account for a large black dog that was frightfully eager to say hello. After giving Harry’s face a thorough lick, the shaggy mutt gently seized his sleeve and pulled him toward Arthur’s shed. Harry waved helplessly to Ron as he was dragged off. Ron just laughed and offered to haul his trunk inside for him, the prat.
No sooner were they inside the shed with the door closed, than Sirius changed to his human form and gave Harry a firm rap on the head. Harry winced and grabbed at his scalp. His godfather had rather hard knuckles.
“What the hell was that for?” Harry snapped, rubbing his abused skull.
“I got your letter,” Sirius said, leaning back against the wall.
Harry looked around, avoiding the man’s glittering black eyes. The shed looked definitely cleaner than he remembered. There was even a comfortable-looking chair in the back, next to the camp bed, along with a small table piled high with musty-looking tomes. “You getting by all right in here?” Harry asked.
“It’s a hell of a lot more comfortable than what I’m used to,” Sirius replied. “And don’t change the subject. I read what you wrote about that Slytherin girl.”
Harry spun to face the man. “She wasn’t just a Slytherin,” he said hotly, “she was my friend and I got her bloody well murdered.”
“Right on one, wrong on two,” Sirius quipped. “Though you picked up on that faster than your dad did.”
“How do you think we managed all those pranks without getting caught? You don’t think Snape ever got lucky or had a good day?” Sirius shook his head. “There were a few people in that House who despised the very air he breathed. They’d sell him out for a Knut, so we always stayed one step ahead of him.”
“You had spies? In Slytherin?” Harry asked, wide-eyed.
“I wouldn’t go that far,” Sirius replied. “We had a few acquaintances in other Houses that would help us out from time to time.” He shrugged. “Everyone traded favours; it’s how you learned to deal with people. Your mum was uncommonly generous with her tutoring help in Potions and Charms. I think that’s one reason she had such an easy go at being Head Girl.” He shook his head, as if to clear it. “Anyway, the part with you blaming yourself for what happened to her – that’s the rubbish.”
“But she didn’t die in the original timeline!” Harry protested. “Something I did caused it to happen,” he concluded in a sick voice.
Sirius made a weary sigh. “Did you kill her, Harry? Did you use the Imperius Curse on one of her classmates to get them to stab her?”
“No,” Harry said, “but I’m still responsible.”
“Dammit, Harry, you’re not a god!” Sirius barked. “So something didn’t turn out the way you expected. Deal with it and move on. You don’t think I wish I’d handled Peter differently? All those Muggles would still be alive and I would never have seen the inside of Azkaban. Worse, I could have pressed my claim as your godfather before the Wizengamot if I thought the Dursleys weren’t treating you right.”
The unshed tears standing in Sirius Black’s eyes killed any protest Harry might have tried to muster. Uncomfortable, he looked away. “Then why do I feel so bloody guilty?” he finally asked.
“Because you are a responsible git, just like your dad.” Sirius sighed and ran his fingers through his hair. It was still a bit long, but much neater than Harry remembered. “Coming back the way you did,” his godfather said after a moment, “you have a lot of advantages. But it’s not everything. Maybe it’s easier to feel like it’s your fault than admit you can’t control everything.”
Harry thought about that for a moment. There was a certain… perverse logic to that, he supposed. At the same time, he felt bands around his heart, bands he didn’t even realize were there, slowly loosen a bit. “When did you get so wise?” Harry asked.
Sirius shrugged. “I nicked your mum’s notes every chance I got.”
Harry laughed at that, feeling a little better. Just like bloody Sirius to slip a joke in to break the tension. After a moment, he looked up at his godfather. “My dad was ‘responsible’?” Harry asked in a small voice, remembering Snape’s memory of James publicly taunting him.
“Yes,” Sirius replied. “Good thing too. Maybe, anyway.” He looked away, going suddenly serious. “When I was bloody pissed at Snape, I set him up to walk in on Moony on a full moon. James found out and decked me, then caught up to him and Stunned the tosser right before he opened the door.” Harry noticed the man’s fists clenching. “Of course, with what you told me, if he’d snuffed it, Voldemort would never have heard the prophecy and your parents would still be alive.”
Harry’s eyes narrowed. “Remus would never have forgiven you if he hadn’t,” he snapped.
Sirius sighed. “It seemed appropriate at the time. Remus’ books had been scattered during a scuffle our seventh year and I saw Snape picking up a letter from his parents before McGonagall sorted everyone out. A week later, Death Eaters attacked their hideout and burned it to the ground. I thought it was too big a coincidence to ignore and arranged a little payback for the Lupins.”
“That’s quite a stretch,” Harry said, still a little annoyed, even though it was years ago and Remus had obviously forgiven him.
Sirius shrugged. “They’d gone into hiding over a year before, but the letter might have held clues as to their location and I never said Snape was stupid.” He shook his head. “It couldn’t have been a coincidence.”
“Even so, I don’t think Remus would have accepted that,” Harry said.
“Probably not,” Sirius agreed. “It took a month before he’d even talk to me after what did happen. But I think what Snape did later with that prophecy means I was right.”
Harry scowled. He didn’t think this argument was worth continuing. They’d probably never know.
Sirius seemed to agree, because he changed the subject; sort of. “So what did the greasy bastard do after you got him sacked?” His lips curled into a rather evil leer.
Harry grimaced. “I don’t know. He was gone by the time Dumbledore made the announcement.” He frowned. “If he really was accepting money from Lucius to spy on me first year, he may have gone to the Malfoys for help.”
“Better to have him clearly on the opposite side then,” Sirius said with a grim smile and a satisfied nod. “Harder for him to play us off against each other.”
“Maybe,” Harry said. Now he had something new to worry about.
Mrs. Weasley put her foot down when it came to dinner that night, so Sirius joined them at the table, rather than under it. He was a little wary of being seen by an unexpected visitor, but Mr. Weasley did something to the Floo to make it chime if someone wished to enter, but not admit them until they were approved.
Harry made an honest effort to join in the meal time conversations, but afterwards he would have drawn a blank if asked what they discussed. For the most part, his mind was still going over what Sirius had said. It was very tempting to believe he truly was not responsible for Melissa’s death, but could that be merely rationalizing?
He was drawn out of his thoughts when someone kicked him under the table. Ginny was sitting beside him, but she didn’t even spare him a glance as she talked to Percy.
Someone had evidently declared The Burrow a “no moping zone”.
He wondered how far she’d go to enforce that edict, but he wasn’t sure he wanted to know. Picturing Ginny kicking him repeatedly as he stubbornly tried to maintain a sulk was so ridiculous he nearly choked on a bite of potatoes.
He shifted a little on his chair and the thick vial in his pocket dug into his leg. Sirius had given it to him as they walked back from the shed.
“See if you can nick a bit of the Basilisk’s poison when Sluggy recovers it,” Sirius said with a grin.
Harry peered sideways at his godfather. “Do I even want to know what you need Basilisk venom for?”
“Been doing a bit of reading while you were away,” Sirius replied breezily. “Basilisk venom is incredibly destructive, and it seems to be the only thing you tried that could damage the Diary. If I’m right, we can use it when we destroy our little collection of keepsakes.”
Harry reluctantly nodded. That made a certain amount of sense. “I’ll see what I can do. If not, he’s going to sell the rest anyway. We can always buy it then.”
“I’d rather not advertise that we even have it,” Sirius replied. “I know it’s a long shot, but I’d rather not leave any pieces lying about for anyone to put together.”
Harry shook his head as Mrs. Weasley asked if he wanted thirds. Molly. He was supposed to start calling her Molly, but the habit was harder to break than he’d realized.
Of course, the shock of Sirius being cautious about anything was enough to make you forget things. He listened as his father’s friend described a prank to the twins that had backfired spectacularly. Harry supposed telling him how he’d died had more of an impact than he’d appreciated. Or maybe just hearing about Harry’s old future had driven home the idea that things can get much worse.
After dinner, most of them retired to the sitting room as Harry and Ginny cleared the table. Physically, they were still the two youngest people in the house, and that chore usually fell to the youngest Weasley that could manage it.
This time, however, Mrs. Weasley stayed behind and showed them both a few simple spells to clear the dishes and start them washing. Harry smiled a little when he realized she was finally accepting the loophole in the underage magic laws. She had always seemed a bit less comfortable with it than Arthur had, but they’d evidently talked it over during the term.
Once the dishes were drying, the three of them joined the rest of the family. Percy had one of his textbooks open, reading ahead for next term. Ron, Sirius, and the twins were playing Exploding Snap and Harry smirked at how well Sirius seemed to fit in with boys half his age.
He was also apparently better at cheating than Fred and George put together.
Harry stretched and yawned.
“Are you all right, Harry? You look tired,” Mrs.- Molly said with a light frown.
Harry shrugged. “I didn’t get a lot of sleep last night, and your dinners always fill me up,” he said with a crooked smile. “I may just go ahead and go to bed so I can catch up.”
Molly nodded. “You do look a bit worn out. Let me know if you have any trouble getting to sleep. I’ll leave the kettle out and a cup of warm milk won’t take but a second to heat.”
“Thanks,” he said. “I’ll do that.” As he turned towards the stairs, Ginny caught his eye. She was frowning a little until he nodded.
He just needed a bit of rest. But it was nice to have so many people looking after him again.
There was good and bad news as Christmas approached. Bill and his co-workers were able to get their new project done ahead of schedule and earned an unexpected holiday over the holidays, which made Molly and the rest of her brood extremely happy.
Charlie, on the other hand, wrote from the dragon reserve to report that a dragon-pox outbreak at one of the camps had many of the handlers too sick to work. His boss made a personal appeal, reminding him that if they were too short-staffed some of their charges might suffer, until Charlie reluctantly agreed to cancel his leave. Molly was a bit upset that he wouldn’t be joining them for Christmas that year, but Arthur beamed with pride at how responsible his son had become. It took a while for him to cheer her up, but eventually he managed and the whole family mailed off a care package that required four owls to lift.
Harry was looking forward to talking to Bill again, and secretly relieved not to have to explain things to someone else. He felt a bit guilty about that, but he never really knew which way someone would react to hearing his tale. Bill’s blasé acceptance still intrigued him a little.
Bill doubled up with Percy when he arrived the day before Christmas Eve, and volunteered to lead everyone on a shopping trip to Diagon Alley. Molly’s reflexive misgivings didn’t last long against the combined enthusiasm of her offspring. Bill was very much the ‘cool’ older brother, even to Percy. For the latter, it probably didn’t hurt that he’d also been Head Boy in his day, and had a thriving career.
Sirius, however, was rather disappointed with the eldest Weasley brother.
When Bill went out to take a look at the ward stones, he looked up at the huge black dog bounding toward him. “When did you lot talk Mum into a dog?” he asked curiously, and Harry realized that Sirius never really came up in their conversation at the Three Broomsticks.
The Grim-like dog skidded to a stop in front of Bill, then cocked its head and whined. Ron started laughing, making Bill turn toward him – long enough for Sirius to transform.
The Curse-Breaker did jump a little when he turned back around, but didn’t even reach for his wand. “Sirius Black?” he asked.
“Wanted mass murder?”
Sirius nodded again, grinning.
Sirius sighed and looked disappointed. Ron laughed even harder, but the twins looked crestfallen.
Sirius was also rather sad at being left behind again, but not knowing if Peter had talked made even his animal form too dangerous to reveal. Harry grabbed some parchment and a quill and pulled his godfather aside.
“What?” the older man asked petulantly.
“If I’m going to be doing your bloody shopping for you,” Harry said in an exasperated tone, “I don’t want to forget something and give you an excuse to whine.”
“I do not whine!” Sirius exclaimed in a wounded tone.
“If you were any more disappointed that Bill didn’t freak out, you’d be crying your eyes out,” Harry said, rolling his own eyes.
“I wasn’t that bad.”
Harry just looked at Sirius, slowly raising one eyebrow.
“That was damn scary,” Sirius said, clutching his chest. “Your mum had this way of looking at us when she was annoyed or thought we were being stupid. James tried to copy that when he became Head Boy, but he could never quite pull it off. She could shut us down faster than McGonagall.”
Harry burst out laughing.
Ginny also received a list from her mum, and Arthur asked Bill to pick up a few things as well. From what Harry overheard, Professor Lupin was invited to Christmas dinner, and Molly was planning just as big a meal for the Grangers on Boxing Day. Harry smiled as he watched her bustle about The Burrow. She definitely loved playing the host.
Bill led them through the Floo to the Leaky Cauldron with little fanfare. The pub was fairly busy for the middle of the day, but Harry supposed it was the impending holiday. He reminded himself again that people were a lot more carefree about gathering in public before Voldemort returned.
When Bill asked which shop they wanted to hit first, Ron surprised them all when he said, “Flourish and Blotts”. He promptly turned red as everyone turned to stare at him. “What?” he demanded.
Ginny just smiled slightly and shook her head.
Harry turned towards the twins just as Fred was opening his mouth. George quickly elbowed his brother and the comment died aborning.
As they made their way around the first bend in the alley, Ron quietly edged towards Harry.
“Right,” Bill announced. “Mum made me promise to keep an eye on you lot, so go in, get what you need and come back out here. I’ll be waiting.”
“What about you?” Ginny asked.
“I already did my shopping,” Bill said smugly as he handed her Arthur’s list. “Amazing what you can find when you travel.” He turned towards the twins, who were looking entirely too innocent. “And I wouldn’t suggest messing about with my baggage,” he warned. “I’ve learned some rather nasty tricks this past year.”
“Wouldn’t think of it,” George assured him as he walked into the shop.
As soon as they entered the bookshop, Ron grabbed Harry’s elbow and steered him off to the side. “You’ve got to help me,” he said quickly.
“With what?” Harry asked, guessing he already knew the answer.
“I need to get something for Hermione,” Ron said quickly. “She likes books, right?”
“I guess,” Harry said slowly.
“Last year, she said she really liked your present from here. How did you know which one to get her?” Ron asked. “She’s mad about reading, you know. How can I tell if she’s read one already?”
“That’s a good question, Ron.” Harry said. “You could get her a general reference work, so she’ll still need it even if she’s read it before.”
“You mean like a book of Arithmancy tables?” Ron asked, clearly dismayed.
Harry nodded. “I know, it doesn’t seem very… special… does it? Not for a present.” Especially not if Ron was starting to have some feelings for their mutual friend.
“Well, I knew it was useless to try and keep up with her reading list,” Harry continued, “So I just set up a tab here, with their owl order service, and sent her the details.”
Ron frowned. “That’s not much better, is it?” he asked. “I mean, you’re making her pick out her own presents. Is that… I mean… did she like that?”
“I think she did,” Harry said. “But it was a very practical gift, I agree. I think you want to give her something more… personal… right?”
Ron coloured a little. “Well, I want…I want her to like it. If I do this tab thing, she’ll think I just copied you.” He paused. “She… I want her to think I went to a little effort, you know?”
Harry nodded. Even if Ron was picking his brain for ideas, he was clearly making an effort here. Admitting all that must have been even harder for him. “You know, there’s a stationery shop next door. She’s always writing things, and getting after us about our penmanship. You could get her a really nice quill and ink set… sort of acknowledging that she writes as well as she reads.”
Ron nodded slowly. “That’s a good idea,” he said. “You doing the book tab here again?”
“Yeah,” Harry admitted. “There are… other… reasons as well.”
Ron looked puzzled for a moment before nodding again. “Yeah, you’re right. She’s scary smart, so that can’t hurt. Good thing you convinced her parents to keep her at Hogwarts.”
Harry shrugged. “They just didn’t have the whole picture, I think.”
Ron looked up, right into Harry’s eyes. “Are you really sure it’s better, for her?”
Harry felt unaccountably proud of his friend at that moment. “Without a doubt, Ron,” Harry replied.
Ron nodded once. “I think I’ll go see if Bill will let me duck into the stationery shop for half a mo’.”
The rest of the expedition passed without incident. Harry was glad not to encounter any unfriendly faces from school, but he also realized that most of the elite pure-blood families were fairly wealthy. As such, he doubted they’d be doing a lot of last minute Christmas shopping. Or if they did, they had servants for that.
That reminded him of something, which led to a quick discussion with Bill and a short detour into Muggle London from the public entrance of the Leaky Cauldron.
The jumpers, trousers, and winter jackets they all wore fit right in with the Muggles outside. Bill was nearly as confident operating in the Muggle world, and he was a calming presence. Percy was visibly agitated – right up until the twins started teasing him about it. Ron and Ginny just walked on either side of Harry, practically in lockstep.
Fortunately, they didn’t have far to go. Harry quickly found a small shop that sold notions and holiday novelties and made his purchases. He still had enough pound notes to cover those and a selection of Muggle candies he introduced to his friends.
Ron’s opinion of Muggles increased noticeably after his first Mars bar.
By the time they returned to The Burrow, everyone thought of that little detour as a fine adventure. Even Percy had unwound a little, agreeing that they should do this again over the summer hols. Harry was a little surprised to see how clearly the prefect was influenced by his older brother. Perhaps, with Bill around, he didn’t feel quite as obligated to set an example for the others.
Molly was a little startled when she heard about their little detour, but Bill seemed surprised that she even thought it was an issue, so she soon dropped it. Harry carefully filed that bit of information away for later.
Harry had a nostalgic moment when Ron actually had to wake him up Christmas morning. It also drove home how much better he’d been sleeping lately. Perhaps feeling like he was actually making significant progress was helping. Sirius securing most of Voldemort’s relics last summer was just the most significant change.
The day went as well as he could have hoped; having Bill there resulted in a few more embarrassing stories being shared, from the time before Harry had even met Ron. Harry laughed along with the others, and just basked in the homey atmosphere of The Burrow. This is what he was fighting for, even if a dark corner of his mind counselled that he enjoy it while it lasted.
Occasionally, he would glance over towards Ginny, who seemed just a shade less cheery than usual. He wondered if she was still brooding about the Chamber. In a way, he could understand why she felt guilty, even if no one blamed her for what happened. Harry didn’t know if Draco was aware of what he’d stolen from Harry’s trunk, but that wouldn’t stop Harry from taking it out of his hide if the opportunity arose.
It was a little harder getting to sleep that night, knowing they’d be going back to Hogwarts tomorrow to salvage Basilisk parts. But Slughorn would be supervising, and it should be safe. Harry was still a little uneasy as he turned over and closed his eyes for the third time.
Harry tried not to let his nervousness show as they waited for the Grangers to arrive. There was no way things wouldn’t be a little awkward after his little performance at the Leaky Cauldron, but he honestly couldn’t see what else he could have done.
It still annoyed him that he jumped when the Floo roared to life.
Hermione was the first to step through, and Harry relaxed a little when he saw the smile on her face. Evidently things hadn’t gone too badly for her. Her parents followed her through and Harry was glad to see that neither of them looked as angry as the last time he saw them.
Molly bustled forward and soon had them settled around the scrubbed wood table with mugs of hot chocolate. They hadn’t really had a chance to get cold, travelling through the Floo, but she tended to treat any visitors to The Burrow like that. Besides, her hot chocolate was rather good.
Ron was rather quiet through all this, hardly seeming to look up at all. After the guests had a cuppa and the adults retired to the sitting room, Hermione zeroed in on them before they could leave the kitchen.
“How was Christmas, Hermione?” Harry asked, trying not to grin openly.
“It went very well, Harry,” his friend answered absently as she tried to catch Ron’s eye. The latter’s ears were slowly turning red as he looked down at the floor.
“No problems with the parents?” Harry asked in a low voice, the corner of his mouth twitching.
“Not so much as I expected,” she replied, actually leaning forwards a bit to try and make eye contact with Ron. Her eyebrows began to knit together as Ron shuffled his feet.
“Did you like your presents?” Harry asked. “Ron insisted we coordinate so we didn’t both get you the same thing.”
An odd, strangled sound came from Ron’s general direction.
“Really?” Hermione asked. “That was very thoughtful of you,” she added softly.
Ron’s hands were fisted so tightly on the hem of his jumper that Harry wondered that it hadn’t torn. “Thanks,” he blurted out.
“In fact,” Harry added, “he insisted on taking care of your gift first thing.”
Ron’s head shot up, giving Harry a glare of pure betrayal as his face went scarlet. But any thoughts of impending violence were clearly dispelled by the brilliant smile Hermione gave him.
Harry backed away, feeling a little smug. Any guilt he might have experienced over Ron’s embarrassment was more than made up for by Hermione’s reaction. In some ways, he thought that her insecurity was the bigger problem than his adopted brother’s inarticulate shyness. From the odd comment he’d picked up, Hermione’s intelligence had prevented her from making any friends before coming to Hogwarts, so it was sort of understandable.
He passed through the doorway to the sitting room and came face to face with Mr. Granger. The dentist glared down at him. “What exactly is going on over there?” he asked in a harsh whisper.
Harry shrugged and tried to suppress his smile. “Hermione really liked her present from Ron. I sort of let her know that he went to a lot of effort to pick it out.” He glanced back. Fortunately, neither of his friends had even glanced in his direction.
“So what are you two playing at with my daughter?” the dentist asked, eyes narrowing.
Harry sighed. “Your daughter,” he replied, keeping his voice down, “who is smarter than both of us put together, is talking to one of my best friends, who would sooner gouge out his own eyes than deliberately hurt her.”
Any further conversation was forestalled when a hand appeared behind Mr. Granger, tapping him on the shoulder. As he turned, Mrs. Granger’s hand moved to his elbow, and she firmly guided him back into the sitting room.
It was almost a relief when they took the Floo to Hogwarts. Harry never knew when Mr. Granger’s gimlet eye would come to rest on him, and he had the feeling the man knew more than he let on. Unfortunately, it was almost impossible for Muggles to learn Occlumency, as they had no inherent magic. Hermione said she’d explained to them, in as general terms as possible, that there were a few things she wasn’t able to talk about for magical reasons, but Harry didn’t think Mr. Granger fully accepted that. Not that he could really blame the man.
Things like this really drove home how vulnerable most Muggles were to magical manipulation. Any time they stepped outside the wards around their house, any wizard could sift through their memories. Well, any Legilimens could. Of course, someone unconcerned with casting Unforgiveables could use the Imperius Curse on them and then Obliviate the memory.
As Harry stepped into Professor Slughorn’s office, he decided that thinking about all the ways things could go wrong was not the way to start this project. He swallowed and glanced over at Ginny. She had been rather quiet all morning, and seemed a little paler than usual. He nudged her shoulder gently with his and was rewarded with a wan smile.
Neville and Luna were waiting for them, and from the odd look on Slughorn’s face, and the repressed grin on Neville’s, she been talking to them for quite a while now.
Bill came along partly out of curiosity and partly to reassure his mum. Evidently remembering Bill’s assignment with Carpenter, Fitz-Williams, and Holmes, the corpulent professor’s handshake was rather enthusiastic. Horace Slughorn wasted no time ushering their party down, chatting with Bill about other Gringotts employees he knew.
They made a quick trip outside to the broom shed. Professor Slughorn said the Deputy Headmistress had given permission for them to use the Gryffindor brooms for this task, provided they were responsible for any damages. Given the market price of Basilisk parts, that wouldn’t be a problem, Slughorn assured them with a smile.
Moaning Myrtle’s bathroom was just as damp and dreary as Harry remembered. He reluctantly shuffled up to the marked basin. Slughorn’s avid gaze made Harry rather self-conscious as he cleared his throat. “Open!” he commanded in Parseltongue, wondering whether he’d really acquired this ability from Voldemort, or if some ancestor of his carried the trait like Slughorn claimed his great-uncle did.
The basin obediently sank into the floor, revealing the dank passageway that descended into the darkness.
“Lumos,” Harry incanted softly, lighting up the end of his wand. He mounted his broom and slowly floated over to the chute. He would be in the lead to open the doors below, but Bill would be right behind him, keeping an eye out for any dangers they’d bypassed the first time. Harry didn’t think there could be anything left that wasn’t triggered the first time around, let alone during the barrage they’d laid down in this timeline, but it never hurt to have a professional Curse-Breaker along. Besides, it meant Molly would worry less and that alone was worth it.
Floating down slowly on a broom took considerably longer than sliding down on one’s arse, but it was a lot cleaner. Fortunately, the new brooms didn’t have any tendency to drift, so even Hermione was able to manage with no problems. Not that it kept Ron from following her down as closely as possible, talking to her in a quiet voice the whole time. The bushy-haired girl let out a quiet sigh of relief when they finally reached the outer sections of the Chamber.
Conversely, Ginny looked even more uneasy. Shouldering his broom, Harry quite deliberately walked up to the same side as her free arm and laced his fingers through hers. She jumped a little at the contact and turned her head towards him. If she hadn’t noticed him walking up, Harry reasoned, she was more affected than she let on. He gave her fingers a quick squeeze. “It’s going to be all right,” he murmured.
Ginny nodded once and her fingers tightened around his.
Professor Slughorn opened up a canvas sack he’d been carrying. Inside was a rooster he’d apparently borrowed from Hagrid. The handling, not to mention the light from their wands was enough to rouse the sleeping bird and it let out a loud cry that echoed through the tunnels ahead. Slughorn patted the bird and carefully put it back into the sack. He coughed once, when he noticed everyone staring at him. “Thought it might be prudent, just in case there were any hatchlings,” he explained.
Harry nodded. Though he didn’t remember any from before, Slughorn couldn’t be sure. It was actually a clever precaution, since traditionally the sound of a cock’s crow would kill a Basilisk stone dead. He reminded himself that, for all his grasping ways, the elderly potions professor was actually a very clever man.
Harry led them forwards, holding onto Ginny’s hand. Her complexion seemed a little flushed in the wand light, but he judged that to be an improvement of sorts. She didn’t even react when he spoke Parseltongue again, opening the final doorway.
Harry cast another spell as he stepped forwards, lighting up the stones in the ceiling. With the Chamber of Secrets better lit than it had been in centuries, he looked around.
Dominating the chamber was, of course, the corpse of the Basilisk. It wasn’t as large as the statue of Salazar Slytherin, but the mere existence of a formerly living being that large drew the eye. Both Slughorn and Bill let out startled oaths. Harry suspected neither really believed it was as large as they’d claimed. To be honest, fighting a horribly dangerous creature in an underground chamber would make one’s memory tend to inflate size, but if anything, they had underestimated it.
The second thing Harry noticed was all the carnage. While the Basilisk didn’t appear to have decomposed at all, it had quite clearly been in a fight. Chunks of its flesh were missing, and in a couple of places Harry could see where a curse had punched all the way through its body. He thought of the last few Reductos he’d cast when it had looked like the snake was about to crush them all and his fingers tightened around Ginny’s hand. It had been far too bloody close.
Even the misses were impressive in their own way. Slytherin’s statue didn’t look half so impressive with all the spell damage it had sustained. As big as the Basilisk was, maybe a third of their spells had missed, gouging out hunks of stone and leaving the remainder spider-webbed with cracks.
Harry heard a soft sigh from his left, and turned to see Slughorn gaze sadly at the damaged effigy of his House’s founder. After a moment, the man shook his head and turned back to the corpse. “I would never have believed it, had I not seen it with my own eyes,” he said slowly. He didn’t look away, but his words were clearly directed at Harry. “That has to be one of the largest Basilisks in recorded history. They grow throughout their lives and this one has clearly lived centuries longer than they do in the wild. To think that a monster that size was destroyed by schoolchildren…” He shook his head.
Harry swallowed quickly. “I think the panic helped actually,” he said. “We were so scared it pushed our magic much harder than normal.” He hadn’t talked about his training session with Remus to any other professors – especially not someone like Slughorn who might find that information useful. While Harry was certain his spells had made most of the larger holes, it wouldn’t hurt to spread the credit around.
Slughorn nodded. “Still, this is quite, quite remarkable,” he said, clearly filing that information away with a smile. Harry hadn’t anticipated that, but as he thought about it, decided it didn’t hurt. Word getting around that some of the new Gryffindor students were rather formidable might help more than hurt in the long run.
The professor’s words seemed to break everyone out of their individual reveries. They eased forwards, using their wands to clear away fallen rubble, as Slughorn began unshrinking a collection of wooden crates and sturdy glass collection jars.
Dismembering the battered corpse of an enormous Basilisk was not what Harry would consider the high point of the Christmas hols. However, Professor Slughorn did try to make it an educational activity, teaching them several specialized charms for sectioning the body and collecting the ingredients with a minimum of contamination. There was actually more to it than Harry anticipated, and Hermione at least seemed to find this a silver lining of sorts. Ron and Neville seemed happier about the money the ingredients would net, especially since they had earned this reward.
Ginny, on the other hand, seemed rather dismayed at the danger in which she’d placed her friends. Try as Harry might to reason with her, she still felt responsible for their being here in the first place.
Harry brooded about this as he left her side for a moment to run an errand. Slughorn was talking to Bill about selling the day’s proceeds on the domestic, as opposed to foreign, markets and he was turned away from the large demijohn of oily black Basilisk venom.
Harry winked at Bill over the short professor’s shoulder as he slipped Sirius’ vial out of his pocket. A quick charm his godfather had shown him let him siphon out an ounce or two of the horrifically toxic liquid, and he had the cap screwed on tight a moment later. The vial was in his pocket before he cleared his throat and asked if the scales at the very tip of the tail needed special handling.
When Harry returned to Ginny, he saw that Luna was talking to her. The blonde girl was speaking too quietly for Harry to hear, and she smiled at him and walked over to Neville and Ron before he even reached Ginny.
“What was that all about?” Harry asked her.
“Luna was talking about right after her mother died,” Ginny replied, frowning in confusion. “She said she blamed herself for a long time; because she wasn’t able to get help fast enough. It’s very sad, but I don’t understand why she wanted to tell me just now.”
Harry swallowed. “Er, maybe she’s saying that you are also blaming yourself for something that isn’t really your fault?”
Ginny scowled at Harry for a moment, then gave a single nod and turned back to the section of scales they’d been working on. Her face looked troubled, but the hand holding her wand was steady as a stone.
Harry let out the breath he’d been holding and went back to work loosening the scales. Maybe Ginny felt like they were ganging up on her, but when Luna Lovegood starts making sense, only a fool would refuse to listen.
By the time they were done salvaging everything useful from the carcass, Harry was starting to crave a bit of sunlight or some open sky. Slughorn’s wand danced as he carefully packed away all the materials. He seemed almost giddy, and Harry assumed things had gone better than expected.
His friends seemed equally relieved to bid goodbye to the Chamber of Secrets. They mounted their brooms with alacrity, this time with Harry trailing behind to close the doors behind them. He didn’t really have any plans for the place at the moment, but leaving it open seemed imprudent.
In short order, they were back in Moaning Myrtle’s bathroom and Harry commanded the passageway to close again. The depressed spirit wasn’t anywhere to be seen, but Harry guessed she didn’t dare mess about too much in front of a professor.
Slughorn insisted on personally escorting them to the Floo in his office, and Harry wondered if he knew how some of their parents felt about the whole thing. Molly could be about as subtle as a Bludger when she wanted to make a point, and Harry thought the Grangers’ feelings about this would make her even more emphatic. As it was, Slughorn insisted on looking them over carefully before they left, using his wand to remove a bit of slime from Ron’s sleeve. Finally, he nodded and stuck his head into the fire to contact The Burrow.
The first things Harry noticed when he stumbled from the fire were the drool-inspiring smells that surrounded him. Molly had evidently been going full-tilt since they left, and from her rolled-up sleeves, it appeared that Mrs. Granger had joined in as well. The way both mothers looked them over after the initial greetings only confirmed Harry’s suspicions as they were sent to wash up.
In the sitting room, Mr. Granger, Arthur, Bill, and Percy were all talking over some papers spread on the table amidst the cups of tea. From the scraps Harry heard before they noticed their arrival, they seemed to be discussing Muggle surveillance technology. Harry shook his head as he headed up the stairs.
Clean, refreshed, and eagerly anticipating dinner, Harry headed back down the stairs. As he passed Ginny’s landing, she stepped out, tying back her hair into a ponytail.
“Mum said she’d need a bit of help getting the table set,” she said by way of explanation.
Harry nodded. “Let me know if you need some help.”
Ginny shook her head, smiling. “Three of us in the kitchen are almost too much. We’re not even asking Hermione, which Mum thinks is too much of a shame.”
Harry smirked. “Doesn’t think any girl shouldn’t know her way around a stove?”
“Pretty much, though I doubt she’ll ever have much time to cook after she finishes Hogwarts.”
“Maybe,” Harry agreed. “She’s made a lot of plans, none of them definite.”
Ginny gave a less than lady-like snort. “She can’t, not if she has to wait on Ron.”
Harry shrugged. He didn’t think that was totally fair to her brother, but she had to know him better, didn’t she? “So I guess your planning is going to be a lot simpler?” he asked without thinking.
Ginny faltered. “I, er, I don’t really know,” she said, face reddening.
Harry wanted to kick himself - hard. “Personally,” he said carefully, “I can’t make too many long-term plans until certain problems are dealt with. But once I’m done with those, I imagine things will be different.”
Ginny nodded slowly, looking at some point off to the side. “I see. That’s understandable, I suppose.”
They were silent as they walked down the stairs together.
Dinner that evening was pretty spectacular, even by Weasley standards. Harry wondered privately if this was Molly’s way of apologizing to the Grangers. From the way the two mothers talked of exchanging recipes, Harry judged it to be a rousing success. Arthur and Mr. Granger seemed to be getting on better, as the two of them spent most of dinner asking Bill questions about his new job.
No one seemed interested in talking about their little errand, and that was probably just as well. The Grangers, especially Mr. Granger, had calmed down, but no one wanted to push it.
Professor Slughorn promised that he’d have a manifest prepared within a week, and would start taking bids at that point. However, he hinted that they’d recovered more Basilisk parts than even his most optimistic plans had allowed for.
Harry leaned back from the table, as full as he could be, and smiled. Things seemed to have turned out as well as could be expected.
The rest of the year passed with a singular lack of drama, something for which Harry was rather glad. Ginny seemed to slowly come out of her guilty funk over the Chamber. Ron’s obvious glee over the money they’d get for the Basilisk parts seemed to help. With her brother clearly considering the whole mess to be a profitable experience, it didn’t make a lot of sense to blame herself.
Molly and Arthur, of course, made it clear that the majority of the money was to be saved for a rainy day. Their past financial difficulties had clearly given them a conservative disposition with respect to their children’s windfall. Even so, Ron only wanted to spend a small fraction of his share on a new broom.
When Molly pointed out that he had use of a new broom at school, Ron nodded his agreement and said that was exactly why. “If I take over as Keeper when Wood finishes school, I’ll need to practice over the summer, and it’s better if I have a broom as close as possible to what I’ll be using at school. That way, when I return, I won’t have to get used to a new broom all over again. I read that causes a lot of Quidditch accidents, you know… trying to practice on an unfamiliar broom.”
Harry was staying well out of this argument, though with his original broom destroyed during the Dementor attack, he’d likely have to do the same thing. But that left him in position to see Bill nod off to the side, a small smile on his face. Harry had to suppress his own grin. Evidently, Ron had been well coached.
“I don’t want to get one of the new Firebolts,” Ron continued, making Harry jump a little. He remembered that those had been introduced this year – but he still had use of a good broom at school, so it hadn’t been as much of an issue. “But I’d like to get a Nimbus 2001, the same model we use at school, so there won’t be any differences no matter where I practice.”
Harry noticed Bill tapping his chin.
Ron paused with his mouth open, looking uncomfortable, and then continued, “The more I practice now… well, the better idea I will have if I am really good enough to play for a living once I finish school or if I need to look at a different career.”
Arthur frowned thoughtfully. “You’ve obviously given this some thought, Ron. But I don’t want you spending all your time coming up with good reasons to spend the rest of your money. If we agree to this…”
Ron spoke up, “The rest goes in a vault and gets used for school expenses until I finish school and I can use it to help rent a flat and get set up in a career.”
Molly’s eyes widened, but Arthur cast a sidelong glance at Bill, who looked remarkably innocent. “I suppose you want to do this as well?” he asked Harry after a moment.
“Well, actually, I hadn’t thought about it,” Harry replied. “With everything that happened, I didn’t really stop to think about replacing my 2000. But Ron makes a good point about practicing during the summer. If I get used to a much slower broom, I’m likely to make a mess of things when I return, and Ginny has threatened dire consequences if I don’t stop getting hurt when I play.”
Ginny, who’d been walking past the doorway as this happened, stopped and shot Harry a dirty look. But her mother’s approving smile quickly blunted her ire.
“I think that should go for Ginny as well,” Harry added. “She’s a shoo-in to make Chaser when Angelina leaves school.” He hadn’t meant to embarrass her, and hoped she accepted inclusion as a peace offering.
“We’ll see about that if she makes the team,” Molly said in a dubious tone.
“Er, I don’t think it’s at all in doubt,” Harry said, clearing his throat nervously.
“Oh… that,” Arthur said after a moment. “I suppose you would know, wouldn’t you, Harry?”
Harry smiled. “Yeah; she’s, uh, really good.” Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Ginny’s face turn redder and redder.
Arthur slowly nodded, but Molly still looked a bit dubious. He supposed she didn’t consider Quidditch an entirely proper activity for a respectable young witch.
“I suppose we can just put my part in my trust vault, but we’ll need to get vaults set up for Ron and Ginny,” Harry added quickly before another mother-daughter conflict erupted. “I know Hermione already contacted Gringotts to get a copy of the paperwork. Neville and Luna probably already have something set up.”
“Ah, yes,” Arthur agreed, heading Molly off. “I suppose we should at least get the paperwork started before you all go back to Hogwarts. That way it’ll be ready when the, er, money arrives.”
“I guess I’d better make sure I have my trunk organized for the trip back,” Harry said quickly. “Ginny, I think Ron has the latest copy of Which Broom? upstairs. We should see if there are any cheaper alternatives that have the same specs as the 2001.”
All three of them beat a hasty retreat.
Harry was a little surprised when Neville invited everyone over to the Longbottom mansion for New Year’s Eve, but he was happy that Molly and Arthur had no objections to their going.
Fred and George seemed a bit put out, but Harry suspected that was because some of their favourite targets would not be available this year – they hadn’t been invited for some reason…
The dress was supposed to be ‘casual’, but Molly nonetheless made sure they were looking fairly sharp before she allowed Ron, Ginny, and Harry to leave. Augusta Longbottom tended to have that sort of effect on people, Harry noticed.
However, once they were through the Floo, they found Neville waiting for them in the sitting room, and his expression immediately put Harry on his guard. “What’s wrong, mate?” he asked in a low voice as everyone brushed themselves off.
“Gran said she might invite a few family friends to stop by,” Neville replied. Then he snorted. “A few! It looks like a society ball in there and I think there are still more coming.”
“Why would she do that?” Ron asked, frowning.
“I don’t know,” Neville said, frustration lacing his voice. His expression softened a little when Luna cocked her head and looked at him.
The Floo sprang to life again, disgorging Hermione. She immediately turned around and spoke into the Floo before it went out, telling her mum she was at the right place. Harry and Ron shared the news while Neville looked uncomfortable.
Hermione’s brows knitted for a moment as she digested the facts. “Maybe she’s trying to make up for what happened last summer?” she ventured.
“We, well, we haven’t really talked about that since the beginning of the term,” Neville said. “Er, a lot of harsh words were said, on both sides.”
“Maybe she feels like actions will count more than words?” Harry suggested.
“If she’s introducing all of us as your friends, it means she is publicly accepting us,” Ginny added, glancing over at Luna. The blonde witch didn’t say anything as she brushed a bit of lint from Neville’s sleeve, but her dreamy smile seemed to grow a little wider.
Neville slowly nodded as he led them towards a large double-door. Harry couldn’t recall where this led from the last time they’d visited. “All right, I can see that. But I’m still sorry this got sprung on you all like this.” With that, he swung open the doors.
One look at the ballroom and Harry was rather glad of Molly’s earlier fussing.
Harry never imagined he’d be glad of Slughorn’s Slug Club gatherings – at least not in this way. Horace’s social networking was quite ambitious, but Harry realized that while he had ‘collected’ many up and coming names in the Ministry and in business, he was clearly trying to ‘break into’ the social strata that Augusta Longbottom seemed to have been born into.
Harry made a note to look up the professor’s family at some point. It wasn’t really important, but it might explain why he seemed so desperate to spread his influence.
The Longbottom name, however, seemed to carry a fair bit of weight, and not just within the gardening clubs that Neville described. Harry gave his friend a penetrating glance. It was ironic, given the way Draco had trumpeted the importance of his family, that Neville had never responded in kind. But seeing how uncomfortable the round-faced boy was becoming, Harry started to understand.
Bereft of his parents, in the care of older relatives all his life, Neville was clearly lonely in some ways when he came to Hogwarts. The prospect of making friends at school must have been both terrifying and enticing at the same time. While flaunting his family’s social status might have made things easier in the short term, the quality of those friendships would be suspect. Harry suspected that Muggle-borns, half-bloods, or even pure-bloods from less prosperous families might have been a touch hesitant around Neville if they’d realized. His friend’s growing unease suggested he was worried about something similar happening now.
Harry evidently wasn’t the only one to pick up on this. Luna gave Neville a warm smile and asked if he’d show them around.
Harry nodded and added in a low voice, “We can do this like Slug Club again, everyone all right with that?”
Everyone nodded, but Neville let out a sigh. “I was sort of looking forward to a simple, fun party like last year,” he said plaintively. “You’re all being really good sports about this, but I’m still annoyed at Gran.”
“Maybe she thinks she’s helping us. Someone might have mentioned us being at the gathering at school,” Ginny said thoughtfully. “Mum mentioned hearing about it from one of her friends.”
“Yeah, but she could at least have asked first,” Neville countered. “I thought after we had things out she’d stop springing things on me that she thought were for my own good.”
Ron chuckled. “Mum still does that to all of us, even Bill, and he’s ancient.”
As they moved out and joined the party, they found their normal roles altered. The focus of the conversations was slightly less on the Ministry and slightly more on the interactions between various families. This left Hermione a bit out of her element, as the former was much better documented in her beloved books. Still, she had a few moments to shine. When an older wizard brought up Harry’s allegations that Sirius Black had been treated unfairly under the legal code, Hermione brought forth all the knowledge she’d acquired when they’d been researching ways to get him released last year. She held forth for over ten minutes on the lack of an effective appellate system in British Wizarding law, contrasting it somewhat unfavourably with the safeguards built into both British and European Muggle statutes.
Harry, who’d been reading the same books along with her in the library, was again flabbergasted by the depth and detail of her memory. He couldn’t recall half the things she was mentioning. It was only as she was winding down that she realized how much attention was focused on her and began to show signs of nervousness.
“Studying to be a barrister, are you?” the older wizard asked in a jovial tone in the silence that followed.
“Er, no, sir,” Hermione said quickly. “Harry just asked me to help him look into it, back before Mr. Black escaped. It was sort of a side project we worked on in our free time.”
The man smiled, but Harry thought he also looked somewhat relieved.
Neville, too, as Augusta’s heir and the male host, was called upon to play a more active role than usual. Usually, this took the form of making introductions, which the nominally forgetful boy managed to do with little difficulty. Harry wondered if that was from increased confidence or lots of rehearsal in the past.
And despite his earlier misgivings, Neville worked at being a more active participant in the conversations. Harry didn’t know if it was because of his role as a host, or a desire not to let his friends down, but it was noticeable. Several of the adults also seemed to pick up on this, giving Neville the odd glance.
For his own part, Harry wasn’t mobbed to the extent he expected. Augusta Longbottom’s cohort, the elder wizards and witches, seemed to be more… restrained… than that. He was included in the conversations, of course, but people weren’t obviously seeking him out as The Boy Who Lived.
Harry actually found himself enjoying that a little. He knew he was on display to a certain degree, but no more than his friends. To this crowd, they were all “Neville’s Friends from Hogwarts”, and would likely be judged as such, as would Neville. He hoped they managed to change some opinions regarding their friend, as well as make good first impressions.
Because, unless he changed things, this world was heading into the abyss of war, and he could not afford for all of these people to sit on the sidelines until it was too late.
A/N: And with the end of the year comes the end of the chapter. Many thanks to Runsamok, Kokopelli, and Sherylyn, the betas that make this readable.
I’d also like to thank the people on the Viridian Dreams forums for commentary and encouragement. If you have questions regarding this or any of my other stories, you can get a lot of answers there, as well as preview new stuff before it is released. My blog also displays progress bars for whichever chapters I’m currently working on.