'Again?' said Mrs Longbottom, sounding slightly weary. 'Very well, Alice dear, very well - Neville, take it, whatever it is.'
Harry hardly dared believe her, yet his heart was lightening almost in spite of himself.
'Harry, dear,' said Mrs Weasley poking her head into his and Ron's bedroom, where the pair of them were playing wizard chess watched by Hermione, Ginny and Crookshanks, 'could you come down to the kitchen? Professor Snape would like a word with you.'
Sirius and Lupin had given Harry a set of excellent books entitled Practical Defensive Magic and its Use Against the Dark Arts, which had superb, moving colour illustrations of all the counter-jinxes and hexes it described. Harry flicked through the first volume eagerly; he could see it was going to be highly useful in his plans for the DA. Hagrid had sent a furry brown wallet that had fangs, which were presumably supposed to be an anti-theft device, but unfortunately prevented Harry putting any money in without getting his fingers ripped off. Tonks's present was a small, working model of a Firebolt, which Harry watched fly around the room, wishing he still had his full-size version; Ron had given him an enormous box of Every-Flavour Beans, Mr and Mrs Weasley the usual hand-knitted jumper and some mince pies, and Dobby a truly dreadful painting that Harry suspected had been done by the elf himself. He had just turned it upside-down to see whether it looked better that way when, with a loud crack, Fred and George Apparated at the foot of his bed.
'Well . . . well, I don't know whether you know what - what stitches are?'
Mrs Weasley was the only person in the basement when they arrived there. She was standing at the stove and sounded as though she had a bad head cold as she wished them 'Merry Christmas', and they all averted their eyes.
There was a long silence, broken by Lockhart's angry voice.
The journey to St Mungo's was quite quick as there was very little traffic on the roads. A small trickle of witches and wizards was creeping furtively up the otherwise deserted street to visit the hospital. Harry and the others got out of the car, and Mundungus drove off around the corner to wait for them. They strolled casually towards the window where the dummy in green nylon stood, then, one by one, stepped through the glass.
The reception area looked pleasantly festive: the crystal orbs that illuminated St Mungo's had been coloured red and gold to become gigantic, glowing Christmas baubles; holly hung around every doorway; and shining white Christmas trees covered in magical snow and icicles glittered in every corner, each one topped with a gleaming gold star. It was less crowded than the last time they had been there, although halfway across the room Harry found himself shunted aside by a witch with a satsuma jammed up her left nostril.
Well, it's nothing to be ashamed of!' said Mrs Longbottom angrily. 'You should be proud, Neville, proud! They didn't give their health and their sanity so their only son would be ashamed of them, you know!'
'Dumbledore wants to stop you having those dreams about Voldemort,' said Hermione at once. Well, you won't be sorry not to have them any more, will you?'
'Well, Sirius says it's not so much a bedroom, more a kind of - 'den,' said Hermione. 'Apparently he sleeps under the boiler in that cupboard off the kitchen.'
'Nah, it's the fourth,' said Harry, 'one more -
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Fred, George and Ron laughed; Hermione, however, looked reproachful.
'He must be sneaking around upstairs,' he said, and without further ado pulled open the door. 'Urgh!'
'I was supposed to see you alone, Potter,' said Snape, the familiar sneer curling his mouth, 'but Black - '
'Oh, stop feeling all misunderstood,' said Hermione sharply. 'Look, the others have told me what you overheard last night on the Extendable Ears - '
Harry followed her back to the second floor. When he entered the bedroom, he was rather surprised to see both Ron and Ginny waiting for them, sitting on Ron's bed.
Harry did not mention his vague suspicions to Sirius, whose cheerfulness was evaporating fast now that Christmas was over. As the date of their departure back to Hogwarts drew nearer, he became more and more prone to what Mrs Weasley called 'fits of the sullens', in which he would become taciturn and grumpy, often withdrawing to Buckbeak's room for hours at a time. His gloom seeped through the house, oozing under doorways like some noxious gas, so that all of them became infected by it.