Disclaimer: This story is based on characters and situations created and owned by JK Rowling, various publishers including but not limited to Bloomsbury Books, Scholastic Books and Raincoast Books, and Warner Bros., Inc. No money is being made and no copyright or trademark infringement is intended.

Summary: "Chamber of Secrets" from Ginny's point of view. Ginny attempts to make amends and regain something approximating a normal life, with varying degrees of success. If you pretend hard enough, can you make something true?

Author's Note: So once again I fail utterly at timely updates. Sorry. At least there is only one chapter and the epilogue to go? (You know, I have taken so long writing "Secrets" that one of my original betas has left fandom, while the other got married and has a new baby, which is why I didn't ask her to edit this chapter. I think this means I have officially lost all updating credibility forever.)

Thanks to Lynati and Helena for cleaning up this chapter! Any remaining canon goofs, grammar mistakes, continuity errors, bad dialogue, implausible characterizations, boring passages, and Americanisms are my fault, not theirs.

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CHAPTER 14: Making It Better
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The trouble with making sure she got to Binns's classroom before everyone left was that Ginny accidentally arrived early and had to stand out in the corridor thinking about every way her apology could go wrong. What if Colin refused to listen? What if he hated her? What if she got so nervous she couldn't talk, and he thought she was making fun of him? What if Susan or Danny wouldn't even let her talk to Colin?

Ginny shifted her bag from her right shoulder to her left and drummed her fingers against the wall. She'd been standing here forever - why hadn't the lesson ended already?

She tiptoed across the corridor and peered through the little window in the classroom door. Oh. It was ending right now - the clock on the wall read quarter past one, and Apple had just raised her hand to ask a question that would distract Binns while the other Gryffindors prodded each other awake and slipped free. Once everyone was gone, Apple would find a way to extricate herself from the professor's endless droning.

She'd been doing that since September, and gratitude for the service was one reason nobody had really tried to ostracize her. Ginny suspected that Apple knew that and had begun her distractions on purpose. She might be a Gryffindor, but Apple was bound to have learned some more Slytherin tricks from Daphne.

Colin would be out in a minute. No, less than a minute. Ginny twirled a bit of hair around her fingers and yanked, trying to focus her thoughts.

What was she going to say to him? How could she apologize - not just for Petrifying him, but for sending him out on a fool's errand in the middle of the night, when she'd known it would only put Harry's back up? Colin was awfully annoying, but she should have held her tongue.

The door creaked open and the first years poured into the corridor, talking in low whispers until Eugene shut the door behind himself. They didn't huddle together like they'd done since Dumbledore's removal - instead, everyone seemed cheerful despite their recent exposure to Binns's droning. Jia-li and Gwen even dashed around the corner without a backwards glance, laughing as they went.

Ginny hung back against the wall. But she had no convenient alcoves to hide in or suits of armor to defend her, and after a moment Eugene glanced over his shoulder and spotted her. "Oh, hi, Ginny. Susan told us about, er, well..." He frowned, groping for the right words. "About the Heir and so on. Are you all right? Do you want today's notes?" He pushed his glasses up his long nose and ventured a quizzical smile.

Ginny shook her head. "I'll ask Apple later. Erm. Colin?"

Colin Creevey stepped warily back toward the classroom door. "Yes?"

"Can I talk to you? Alone?"

Danny grabbed Colin's arm and glared at Ginny. "We're not letting him go off with anyone, especially not you," he said. "The last time he saw you, he got turned to stone!"

Ginny flushed, fighting a wash of guilt and rage. Yes, it had been her fault, but it wasn't as if she'd meant to Petrify Colin, and Danny had no right to act like Ginny was going to hurt him now.

"Fine," she snapped. "I don't have anything to hide. Colin, I'm- I'm sorry. I shouldn't have told you to sneak out at night. Harry wouldn't have appreciated your visit. I knew that, but I let you think he'd be pleased. I was being cruel and I had no right."

Colin said nothing.

"And- and I'm sorry you were Petrified," continued Ginny. "I didn't know. I told Riddle everything because he pretended to be my friend, so he knew you'd be wandering around. Then he possessed me while I was sleeping. I didn't figure it out until a long time after. But you wouldn't have been out there if I hadn't been such a toad-licking idiot, so it's my fault whichever way you look at it. And I'm sorry."

The words poured out in a tumbling rush, leaving Ginny weak-kneed and wrung out, as if she'd been fighting to keep from saying them and the sudden lack of struggle left her unbalanced. She leaned back against the wall, wondering what Colin would say, or whether the others would listen for once.

"That still doesn't-" Susan started, but Colin held up a hand.

"Ginny's talking to me," he said. "Don't interrupt!" Susan grimaced, but held her tongue. Ginny blinked. When had Colin learned to take charge instead of bouncing around like an overexcited Billywig?

Colin took a deep breath and shook Danny's hand off his arm. "I can't forgive anybody yet because I'm still not sure what happened! It's May! I missed nearly all year! My camera's broken, I don't know what anybody told my family when I stopped writing to them, and I'm going to fail next year even if my dad lets me come back." He scrubbed his hands through his hair. "Susan didn't make any sense when she explained about the Heir. Can you tell me what happened, Ginny? Who's Riddle and why was he pretending to be your friend?"

"Tom Riddle was the Heir of Slytherin," said Ginny, silently cursing Susan and her useless explanations for making her drag this out again. "He left a memory of himself in a diary after he opened the Chamber of Secrets fifty years ago, and I wrote to him all year. He pretended to be my friend so I wouldn't suspect him when everything started going wrong on Hallowe'en."

Ginny twisted a strand of hair around her fingers. Did she need to explain anything else? Colin was still watching her expectantly, so she probably ought to. She grimaced and continued. "Erm. I'm not sure about everything he was trying to do, but I think he only Petrified people to confuse the professors, and because he thought it was fun. He was more interested in making a new body so he could get out of the diary."

"How?" said Colin.

Toad guts. She didn't want to talk about Tom. It would sound like she was justifying herself, and this wasn't supposed to be about her. It was about Colin, and what Ginny owed him. "By draining other people's magic and lives," she said.

Jasper whistled. "Professor Dumbledore said Harry Potter saved your life. Was Riddle trying to kill you?"

Ginny shrugged. "By then, yes. He said I wasn't any other use. But that's got nothing to do with Colin! The point is that I was too stupid to see that he was lying to me, so I told him Colin was going to be near the infirmary that night. And Riddle... I think he thought it was fun to frame Harry, so he kept picking victims who looked like Harry might be angry at them. I set Colin up for him. I didn't know I was doing it, but I did know I was setting him up for Harry to yell at him, so it wasn't all an accident."

She turned back to Colin. "I'm sorry about that. I was angry at you for being annoying and bothering Harry, but that's no excuse for trying to make you feel like an idiot when you realized Harry didn't want you visiting him. I was a complete toad-licker and if you never want to talk to me again, I understand."

"Well, I think-" Susan started, but Ginny talked over her.

"And I'm sorry to everyone else, too. Not for everything - I'm not sorry I called you all idiots when you thought Harry was the Heir, because you were idiots - but... I think I've been jumping to conclusions all year, at least a little." And she hated admitting that, especially with Susan and Danny watching her suspiciously, like they'd watched Harry when they'd thought he was the Heir. But it was true.

"Riddle didn't want me listening to anyone who might point out his lies, so he told me I was right whenever I thought the worst of someone. And I listened to him because- because I wanted to think I was always right. And because I liked him, before I found out he was lying." Ginny caught Susan's eye and said, very deliberately, "So I probably yelled at you sometimes when I shouldn't have, and stuff like that. Even if we'll never be friends, I don't hate any of you and I don't really think you're toad-lickers. Much. Truce?"

"Now wait a minute-" Susan tried again.

"I forgive you," said Colin.

Susan turned, mouth still open, and stared. "What, for everything? She wasn't even possessed for half of it - she said so!"

"I still forgive her," said Colin. "I'm allowed." He walked across the corridor and offered his hand to Ginny. "I forgive you," he repeated. "Why don't we be friends? I'll try not to be annoying, you'll try not to be snappish, and we'll tell each other when we're slipping. Deal?"

Ginny grasped his hand in a daze. "Erm. Okay? And I suppose I can help you catch up in Herbology? Apple's probably given you notes for everything else already..."

"Yes I have, and thank you for your offer," said Apple, drawing everyone's attention as she shut the door to Binns's classroom with an audible click. She cast a cool eye over the gathering - Eugene off to one side, expressionless; Jasper, Danny, and Susan clustered together in disgruntlement; Colin gripping Ginny's hand with determined cheer; Ginny leaning against the wall, flabbergasted - and clapped her hands. "This looks fascinating, but may I suggest moving along? The fourth-year Slytherins will be here any minute."

"Point for you," said Eugene, swinging his bag onto his shoulder. "Shall we go outdoors or to the common room?"

"You can go wherever you want," said Colin, "but I'm going to the library with Ginny and Apple, to study."

Ginny blinked. They were? She supposed it was the decent thing to do, and if they found a table in the back corner, it would also get her away from people's curious, pitying stares.

"But you don't-!" said Susan, and paused. This time nobody interrupted, and she forged onward. "You don't even like Ginny! Why are you being nice after everything she did? She doesn't deserve it!"

Colin shrugged. "So? My little brother Dennis always gets me in trouble when I'm at home. That doesn't mean I hate him. Anyway, even if I wanted Ginny punished for helping me make an idiot of myself, being possessed and nearly killed is a lot worse than detention - don't you think? I'm calling it even."

"That seems reasonable to me," said Apple. "Now, if you'll excuse us, we really must be going." She stepped around Susan, deftly detached Colin from Ginny, and began to pull them down the corridor.

"But-" Susan said again.

"Oh, bloody well let it go," said Jasper, clapping his hand on her shoulder. "If Colin wants to be friends with her, it's no skin off our backs. Come on, let's go down to the lake."

"What, are you going to try whistling up the squid again?" asked Danny.

Ginny missed Jasper's response, his voice muffled by Apple's sudden turn into the stairwell. As they started up the steps, Ginny slid her hand free and glared at Apple's back. "You didn't need to be so abrupt. I would've come along without you dragging me."

"You're being snappish already," said Colin, poking her in the side. "Stop it."

"Oh, shut it," said Ginny, but she managed a limp imitation smile to show she wasn't really angry. "I can't stop being annoyed just by wishing, not without illegal magic."

"Of which there has already been far too much floating around the castle," said Apple as they reached the landing and headed down a narrow, twisty corridor toward the library. She turned and began walking backwards, eyeing Ginny and Colin with an appraising air. "Be honest: do you two truly intend to be friends, or shall we settle for study partners? I refuse to play peacemaker between you."

Ginny looked sideways at Colin. "You're an annoying twit, but you're no worse than my brothers. And you realized Harry couldn't be the Heir. I'm game if you are."

"You're bossy and too short-tempered, but nobody's perfect," said Colin, grinning at her. He bounced on his toes as he walked.

"Not even Harry Potter?" said Ginny, faking another smile.

Colin laughed. "Not even Harry Potter," he agreed. "Let's be friends."

Slowly, for the first time since the Chamber, Ginny's imitation smile firmed into something real.

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The impromptu study session quickly settled into Apple leading Colin through the highlights of several months of Transfiguration theory. Ginny sat across from them and copied Apple's Potions notes from that morning, listening with half an ear in case Apple hit on any explanations that made more sense than Professor McGonagall's lessons. Eventually Colin closed his eyes and slumped forward to rest on the table. "Stop!" he said. "My brain hurts."

"Fair enough," said Apple, closing A Beginner's Guide to Transfiguration. "Ginny, are you finished with my notes or would you like me to clarify any points?"

Ginny flicked the feathered tip of her quill against her chin and stared down at the parchment. "Maybe a couple questions," she lied. Apple's notes did skip some intermediate steps, but Ginny was perfectly capable of filling in the blanks herself - unlike Transfiguration, Potions made sense. But she wanted to talk to Apple without Colin around.

"Have fun," Colin said, sweeping his notes into his bag and standing up from the high-backed library chair. "Erm. D'you mind if we eat dinner together? I don't like how everybody stares at me and keeps asking what it felt like being Petrified."

Ginny and Apple agreed to sit next to him, and watched him dash away through the shelves. Then Apple turned back to Ginny with a considering expression. "You don't need help with Potions," she said. "You're better in that class than I am. What do you really want to talk about?"

Ginny shoved Apple's notes across the table with a grimace. "Could you not act like you're reading my mind? It's creepy." Especially after Tom.

"I apologize for being observant," Apple said dryly. Then she frowned and corrected herself. "No, I apologize for being unobservant and insensitive. I thought something was off about you since Hallowe'en, but I was too annoyed to look closely. I suppose I'll always wonder if I could have done any good if I'd paid attention. But I'm getting away from the point." She was tapping her fingers against the table the way she'd done when asking about the Heir. It was odd seeing Apple with a nervous tic.

"It's not like I would have listened to you while I still believed Tom," Ginny pointed out. "Even after I knew, I probably would've shoved you away. I was awfully annoyed at you, too."

Apple drummed her fingers, waiting.

Toad guts. She really was going to have to go through with this. Ginny pinched a strand of hair between her finger and thumb, twisting it around and around. "I need to talk to Daphne."

"To what end?"

Ginny pulled harder on her hair. "To... not to apologize - and I'm never going to grovel! - but I can't keep pretending our fight is all her fault. I want to call a full truce. Can you get her to agree?"

"You'll need to argue that one through yourself, and don't expect me to help," Apple said. "But I should be able to set up a meeting in a neutral place. Do you want witnesses?"

"You, of course," Ginny said. "We both trust you. Nobody else, though - I don't need more people watching me humiliate myself."

"And if Daphne wants you humiliated?"

Ginny scowled. "Then she can-" She paused, took a deep breath, and untangled her fingers from her hair before she yanked it from her scalp. "Then you can remind her she'll be humiliating herself just as much, and tell her to bring her friend Ruth if she's so much of a toad-licking weasel she can't trust me to hold to a truce she wouldn't honor herself."

Apple raised one eyebrow, a faint grin hovering over her face. "In those exact words?"

"Erm. No?"

"Fair enough," said Apple, gathering her Potions notes into a loose sheaf and tapping them against the table to align the edges. "I'll ask her tonight, but she'll need to shout and stomp around for a day or three before she can think about it seriously."

"That's all right," said Ginny. "Go on - I still have to finish my Herbology essay for tomorrow. I didn't exactly have time to do it over the weekend."

Apple nodded and vanished among the bookshelves, leaving Ginny alone in the heavy, dust-filled silence of the library.

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Dinner was less awkward than breakfast, mostly because Ginny elbowed Fred and George apart and sat between them, beckoning Colin and Apple to claim the other side of the table. "We're not talking about the Chamber, the basilisk, or any of that stuff," she informed her brothers. "Mum wants you to look after me. So distract us, and don't let anyone get too close."

The twins exchanged a long-suffering glance, but they spent the next hour explaining how they were adapting some sixth-year Potions (apparently they'd stolen Percy's notes) for nefarious purposes, and possibly also for profit. Now and then Apple asked for clarification of minor technical details. Ginny wondered if she was gathering ideas for Daphne, and what the twins would do if they found a Slytherin imitating their tricks. Colin listened in rapt silence, and Ginny dared to hope he might have found a new focus for his hero worship. Probably not, though.

Eventually Apple hauled Colin off to the library for more tutoring, leaving Ginny alone with her brothers. Ginny didn't protest when they insisted on escorting her back to Gryffindor tower. She didn't need protection, but right then, company was nice.

She had nearly relaxed when Fred slung her over his shoulder and held her legs still while George pulled off her shoes and tickled her feet.

"Beasts!" Ginny panted through her helpless laughter. "Toad-lickers! Gits! Put me down!"

"Fair payment, sister dearest!" Fred sang.

"We entertained you; it's only fair you entertain us," added George. "What do you say, Fred, has she balanced the debt?"

"Close enough." Fred dropped Ginny to her feet and held her arms for a moment while she steadied herself. "Pax?"

Ginny raked disheveled hair out of her face and glanced around the stairwell, hoping nobody had seen them. Well, even if someone had walked past, there wasn't much she could do about it now. "Oh, fine. Where are my shoes?" The slate tiles of the landing were cold under her bare feet, worn smooth and slick by decades of footsteps.

"Ah," said George, balling up her socks in his left hand. "They might have fallen over the banister?"

Hands on her hips, Ginny glared at her brothers. "What are you going to do about it?"

"Let you fetch them?" offered Fred, and ducked under Ginny's punch. "Only joking! I'll go." He dashed back down the stairs, leaving George and Ginny alone. George pulled a wry face and slouched against the wall of the landing.

"I know you don't want to talk about Riddle," he said after a moment, "but if you ever want to - or need to - Fred and I will listen. We won't even joke about it." Ginny snorted, and George's mouth tilted up into a smile. "Much," he qualified.

"I might take you up on that, someday," said Ginny, not really meaning it. She loved her brothers, but the twins were not her idea of good confidants... except about pranks, of course. But she didn't want to argue.

She sat down on the stairs, leaning against the granite balusters. "Hand over my socks. My feet are freezing."

"I don't see how - it's been hot as blazes all day," grumbled George, but he tossed the wadded socks neatly into Ginny's lap. She pulled them on, grateful for the warmth of the frequently darned wool. It might be warm outside, but in the heart of the castle, the stones still clung to the memory of winter.

"You're sure you're fine?" asked George, after a moment.

Ginny pressed her cheek to the polished stone of the balusters. "I will be. He's dead - I won't let him pull me down after him."

"That's the Weasley spirit!" said Fred, dashing up the last flight of stairs and catching himself on the banister. "No matter what happens, don't knuckle under. And always remember to keep smiling-"

"-it throws the bastards off something awful," finished George.

Fred tossed Ginny's shoes in her general direction. One thumped into her lap, while the other rolled back down the stairs to the landing. "Three Knuts for speedy delivery," said Fred, holding out his hand.

"Three Knuts for throwing them away," Ginny told him, untangling the laces and jamming her right foot into the shoe. "We're even."

"I didn't throw your shoes down the stairs," said Fred. "That was George. So he owes you and you owe me, which, if we cut out the middleman, means-" He turned to George, hand still outstretched.

George grabbed it and shook, vigorously. "I'm so pleased you've accepted our partnership, Mr. Weasley!" he said. "It's an honor to work with you!"

"I think you've misunderstood," Fred said solemnly. "There is no partnership without trust, and there is no trust when debts remain unpaid. Three Knuts, Mr. Weasley."

George looked scandalized. "I am shocked and appalled at your insinuations, Mr. Weasley! As if I would ever welsh on a debt. Ginny, tell Fred he's mistaken about me."

"No, Ginny, tell George he's being a weasel," said Fred.

Ginny collapsed sideways against the balusters, nearly crying with laughter. It wasn't even that funny, but... but the twins were still the twins, no matter what happened, just like Percy was Percy, Ron was Ron, and even Mum and Dad were the same as ever. Maybe she was still Ginny Weasley, not the puppet Tom had tried to make her into before he decided it was simpler to kill her.

The problem was that she didn't remember who Ginny Weasley was meant to be.

Somehow that struck her as even more ridiculous. She laughed harder, panting for breath. Her side burned.

"I didn't think it was that funny," muttered Fred. "Ginny? Oi, Ginny! Are you all right?"

"You're not supposed to throw us off," added George. He crouched down in front of her and tilted his head, looking at her up and sideways. "Hey there. Take a deep breath. Good. And another. Hold it. Good. And another. Good. Bend down for a moment, head between your knees. Another breath. Hold it. And another. Better now?"

"Yeah," said Ginny, from between her knees. "Thanks. Sorry. I just-"

"That's what laughter's for," said Fred, "pulling out the cork when you've bottled too much up inside. Best not to let it build up so tight-"

"-it can get crazy when you let too much out at once-" said George.

"-but if anyone's entitled to go a bit mad, you are," finished Fred. He ruffled Ginny's hair, then gently pulled her upright. "See? There you are. Now how about a smile for your favorite brothers?"

"You're still behind Ron," Ginny said, but she felt the corners of her mouth tug upward in a smile - a bit watery, she was sure, but genuine.

"We're still running second to ickle Ronniekins?" asked George, pulling a horrible face. "Merlin's beard! What do we have to do to win? Make you into a princess?"

"No!" said Ginny. "Princesses are useless. All they do is sit around waiting for a prince to save them. I'd rather save myself."

"So what use are we?" asked Fred. "Can't we help sometimes? Even princes get help from talking animals and fairy godmothers, right? I think George would make a lovely fairy godmother."

"Hey!" said George. "I'm her fairy godbrother - get your terminology straight. You can be her not-so-evil stepmum, or maybe a talking squirrel."

Fred made a horrible face, and Ginny snickered. The twins had a point - trying to do everything on her own was what had kept her from stopping Tom months ago. "Okay. You can help me save myself," she said. "But I get to help you, too."

"Deal," said George. He held out his right hand, palm up. Fred placed his hand on top of George's, and they looked at Ginny. She covered their hands with her own, palm down.

"Deal," she said, and squeezed her brothers' hands. "Now can we get back to the common room before Percy sends out search parties for me?"

"Your wish is our command, Princess Ginevra," said Fred, sweeping a mocking bow.

Ginny chased him and George all the way to Gryffindor tower.

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The next morning, Ginny slunk into Greenhouse One behind the other Gryffindors. She didn't want to face Professor Sprout or Xanthe. They must have figured out that she'd used them to get access to the Restricted Section under false pretenses.

But Professor Sprout didn't look angry. Instead, she offered a sympathetic smile before she began lecturing on the life cycle of moss, multicolored diagrams blooming on the blackboard as she talked. Ginny stared straight ahead, letting the lecture wash over her. She already knew this. Colin scribbled furiously beside her, muttering under his breath.

At quarter to nine, Professor Sprout clapped her hands and announced a fifteen minute break. "Colin, please come to my desk," she added. "I need to discuss remedial work with you." Colin shuffled forward, leaving Ginny alone at the end of her table. She fiddled with her quill and glanced sidelong at Apple, wondering if she ought to try making conversation. But Apple grabbed her notes and bag and followed Colin to Professor Sprout's desk.

Ginny rested her forehead on the rough planks of the table for a moment. Then she jerked her head up and looked wildly around. Apple wasn't the only person who might be willing to talk to her. And Ginny really, really didn't want to explain things to Xanthe, not yet. She was sick of trying to talk about Tom - it was so hard to explain which parts weren't her fault and which parts were.

Maybe she could sneak out of the greenhouse until break was over. Ginny grabbed her bag and swung her legs over the bench, ready to run for the door.

Xanthe's hand dropped onto her shoulder.

"Hi!" said Xanthe, falsely bright. "You know, while I'm glad you trusted me enough to say anything about dangerous magic, I'm hurt that you didn't let me help. What made you think you could face the Heir alone?"

Ginny slumped forward, hiding behind the tangled curtain of her hair. "I cast the spell. I let him in. The only way to get him back out of my head was to kill him," she said, suddenly as tired as she'd been under Tom's influence. "We're first years - what could you have done?"

"I could have told Professor Sprout or Professor Dumbledore, like you would've done if you'd been thinking." Xanthe sat gracelessly next to Ginny. "Love of light, you almost died! You keep saying you're a useless friend, but don't you know what that would've done to me? I like you, even when you're being stupid. And who would listen to me go on and on if you weren't here? Who'd explain about sporo-thingies and archegony-whatsits if you died?"

"The archegonium is the female part of the moss; the antheridium is the male part," said Ginny, talking into the table in a flat voice. "They get together and make a very confused baby moss plant called a sporophyte, which usually looks dead peculiar. After a while the sporophyte pops open and makes baby male and female moss plants called gametophores, which look like proper moss and have new archegonia and antheridia. Then it goes round again. This is important because sporophytes and gametophores have different effects in potions."

"You're avoiding the subject," said Xanthe. "You know, it won't kill you to look at me and say, 'Xanthe, I'm sorry I was a blithering idiot and didn't ask you for help. I promise I won't do it again.'"

"I was stupid to try doing everything by myself, but I'm not sorry I kept you out of it," said Ginny, lifting her head and frowning at Xanthe. "Riddle could have killed people anytime; he just held off because he thought it was funny to watch us run around like headless chickens." Oh, toad guts, the dead chickens. He'd made her kill chickens with her bare hands. But she could think about that later. "Riddle nearly did kill me. If you'd tried to stop him, I bet he would've killed you, and what do you think that would've done to all your friends?"

Xanthe waved ink-stained fingers through the air. "You didn't ask, so we'll never know. But I bet he wouldn't have touched me, because I would've made you go to the professors right away. That's what they're here for, you know - watching after us."

"Oh, perfect. More parents," Ginny grumbled. "And there I was, thinking they were here to teach us."

"That too," said Xanthe, serenely. "They're allowed to do two things at a time... but not three things; that's against the Educational Statute of 1857."

Ginny looked at her crosswise. Xanthe held her expression for several seconds before she collapsed into laughter. "Oh, your face!" she said. "I'm still annoyed at you, but I'm not too angry, not since you're all right. You were scared, and nobody thinks straight when they're terrified. I know I wasn't thinking straight before the Sorting."

Suddenly furious, Ginny held out her hands like the trays of a scale, evenly weighted. "Get Sorted into a house you don't like, or get betrayed by a friend, locked into your own mind, nearly turned into a murderer, and then almost killed yourself." She dropped her left hand and raised the right until the imaginary scale was nearly vertical from the mismatch. "Yes, I can see how you might get those confused."

Xanthe folded her hands on the table and frowned. "Stop trying to make me yell at you. I told you, you're my friend. If I didn't run away when you were shutting me out all year - and being awfully obvious about it, too - what makes you think I'm going to run now?"

Ginny dropped her hands to the table, feeling wrong-footed. Why didn't conversations make sense anymore? Why wouldn't anyone blame her for the right things? "You did help," she confessed. "I tried to keep everyone out, but you pushed in anyhow. I'd probably be dead if you hadn't."

Xanthe looked baffled. "Did getting into the Restricted Section matter that much?"

"It kept Riddle out of my mind until I slipped and got stupid. But that wasn't what I meant." Ginny moved her quill until it lay centered on her notes, roughly bisecting the parchment. "Do you remember telling me about your Aunt Rose?"

Xanthe nodded.

"Riddle was the halfblood Slytherin boy who tried to use her. Sometime after she escaped, he opened the Chamber of Secrets and killed Moaning Myrtle. Then he put a memory of himself into a diary." Ginny straightened her parchment so it lay exactly parallel to the table's edge. "The memory wanted to get out. He needed to steal somebody's life to do that, and he chose mine. That's why I was always tired. If you hadn't told me about Rose, I wouldn't have realized anything was wrong until I was dead."

"You're welcome, of course," said Xanthe, "but... maybe I'm missing something. How did you know the story was about Riddle? He didn't tell you about Rose, did he? You're not stupid enough to let someone like that into your head."

"I did let him into my head," said Ginny. "Obviously I'm stupid enough. But no, he didn't tell the story the same way." She picked up her quill and twirled it around and around in her fingers, slowly plucking out the lower barbs and dropping them to the floor. "He said that in their fifth year, he fell in love with a girl named Rosalind Winterbourne and he thought she liked him back. But then - this is what he told me - then he found out she'd only been using him to make a sixth-year Ravenclaw jealous. Once she'd caught the other boy's eye, she told Tom he was dirty and no use to her, and he was crushed. That's what he told me. He said that he'd put himself into the diary to sort out his feelings about Rose, and to be a friend to other lonely people."

Ginny pulled out another barb and ground it into the table. "I believed him. I wanted to help him escape the diary and get his life back. He didn't need to kill me; I would've given him pieces my life anyway, because he was my best friend. It would've taken longer, but he would've been out by next fall, I bet."

She dropped her quill to the table and jammed her thumb on the shaft, smashing it irreparably. "He didn't care. He was my best friend, and he was lying to me all the time. He didn't even hate me - that's the worst part. He didn't care enough to hate me. I was just a tool, just something to use. The way he said Rose used him."

Ginny flattened another section of the quill shaft. "I still miss him. I hate that - I hate him - but I want him back anyhow. He was my best friend for five months, and then I spent four more months obsessing about him, and I can't let him go. I want to let him go, and it's not working, and I can't take it anymore!"

Silence.

Ginny looked up into Xanthe's shocked face and flinched. "Erm."

"Oh," said Xanthe.

"Can we pretend I didn't say that?" Ginny said hurriedly. "I'm getting better, and anyhow-"

"No," said Xanthe, grabbing the quill out of Ginny's hands. "I won't let you pull in on yourself and decide everything was your fault. Love of light, Ginny, stop acting like you're the only person who made mistakes!"

"But-"

"But nothing. You were stupid. You screwed up. So did I, so did your brothers, so did the professors - somebody should have noticed something, you know. For that matter, how did you get the diary? Why don't you blame the person who sold it to you?"

"Because-" Ginny began, and stopped. How had Tom's diary ended up stuffed inside her Transfiguration book? Flourish and Blotts usually kept a careful eye their stock, to prevent theft, and the diary wasn't the kind of Sickle-a-dozen toy you might give away for free and never notice. So the diary must have come from somewhere else. Who had brought it into the store? And why give it to her?

But that wasn't the point. "Maybe there's another person at fault," she said. "So what? No matter how I got the diary, I'm the one who wrote in it. Nothing you say will change that."

"I'm not trying to change that!" snapped Xanthe. "I just- oh, bother, Professor Sprout's gone back to the blackboard. Don't you dare run away after class. We need to finish this conversation."

"No, we don't," muttered Ginny, but she shifted over to let Xanthe lay out her own parchment, and pulled another quill from her bag.

Xanthe cared. That was nice. But why did everyone keep pushing at her?

Professor Sprout called the class back to order, and Ginny tried to lose herself in sketching diagrams of moss.

o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o

As soon as the lesson finished, Ginny turned to Colin and asked how lost he felt.

"Very," he said. "But Professor Sprout said I could owl her during the summer if I didn't understand anything in the textbook, and she's letting me take a few houseplants home to see if I can keep them alive. I'll be okay."

That wasn't the answer Ginny had been hoping for, and from the sharp finger prodding her shoulder, Xanthe knew exactly what she'd been trying to do.

"You are not getting out of talking to me that easily," said Xanthe. "I can skip my next lesson if I need to."

Oh, toad guts to everyone! "Watch me," said Ginny, and marched up to Professor Sprout's desk.

The professor raised her eyebrows and set down her wand; off to the side, the eraser continued to wipe colored chalk from the blackboard. "Is anything wrong, Ginny? That is to say, is anything more wrong? Not that I think you can't cope with trouble, but I am sorry for not noticing how badly I was failing you, and..." Professor Sprout trailed off and laughed at herself. "That was a bit of a muddle. Let me try again. I'm sorry, Ginny. As your teacher and mentor, I failed you. How are you doing, and is there any way I can help you?"

Ginny glanced over her shoulder. Caroline and Anne had come up to collect Xanthe, who scowled and mouthed something that might have been 'later.' Then she let her other friends drag her out of the greenhouse.

"Actually I wanted to apologize to you," Ginny said, turning back to Professor Sprout. "When I asked you for that pass to the Restricted Section, I did look up hybridization, but I was really trying to learn Occlumency. I lied to you, and I'm sorry."

Professor Sprout picked up a pot of sphagnum moss and turned it back and forth between her hands, looking pensive. "Well. Thank you for your honesty. By the rules, I have to deduct points for lying to a professor - shall we make it five? - but it seems unfair to penalize you for trying to survive. So I award you five points for creative thinking and advanced study." She set the pot down and prodded the moss with her finger, pushing the tiny branch clusters this way and that. "Am I such a troll that you felt you couldn't confide in me? I do try to be accessible..."

"Oh, no!" Ginny said hastily. "It's nothing to do with you. I didn't tell anyone. I thought-" She paused. What had she been thinking? Like Hermione said, Harry didn't do everything alone. Why had she thought she couldn't ask for help fighting Tom?

"I don't know what I thought," she said, more slowly. "It made sense at the time, but now I can't figure out why I didn't tell anyone. I was awfully stupid, wasn't I?"

Professor Sprout frowned. "I wouldn't say that. Young, certainly. Overwhelmed. Very few people think clearly under stress, and I daresay even trained Aurors might not have reacted sensibly if their minds were infiltrated by a Legilimens - I presume that was why you wanted to learn Occlumency?"

Ginny nodded.

"There you are, then," said Professor Sprout. "You were in a tight spot and chose options that let you survive, even if they weren't the best options. You had friends and family who helped you when you couldn't manage on your own anymore. And that's an end to that." She touched the moss again, just brushing the tip of a green cluster. "However, events have consequences. If you need or want some time and space to sort out your thoughts and feelings, Hagrid and I could always use another hand with the gardens until the end of term."

"You're starting evening Herbology again?" asked Ginny.

"That too," said Professor Sprout, "and of course you're welcome to come. But I thought you might want time alone, and I've always found it's better to do something useful with my free time than to sit in a corner chasing my thoughts in circles." She smiled. "The grounds are a bit extensive for only two people to look after. I can't help you retroactively, but I can at least provide something to take your mind off your troubles."

"Oh. Er, thanks?" Ginny shifted her bag from hand to hand, wondering what else to say. What could she say when everyone seemed determined to take pieces of responsibility away from her?

"You're welcome," said Professor Sprout. She glanced at the clock hanging over the blackboard and frowned. "It's nearly time for my next lesson. Why don't I write you a note and you can go see Hagrid this afternoon? I'm sure he'll have some chores to work on."

"Okay," said Ginny. She poked at the potted moss while Professor Sprout scribbled a note. Then she shoved the parchment into her bag and fled.

o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o

Ginny skipped Charms. She was technically excused from lessons until Wednesday, and while Flitwick was nice, she didn't care about his opinion the way she cared about Professor Sprout's.

Instead, she skulked in the library until she was sure the other first years had reached the Charms corridor. Then she slipped downstairs to the Great Hall, picked at an early lunch, and fled back outdoors. The weather was beautifully sunny and warm, hardly a cloud in the sky, but Ginny refused to be tempted into a better mood.

She worked her way around the grounds, dipping down to kick stones into the lake, then circling around to pace the painted edge of the Quidditch pitch. She didn't want to talk to Hagrid. He'd spent three weeks in Azkaban because she'd been too wishy-washy to get rid of Tom, and too stupid to close the link after she'd opened the diary. Hagrid probably wouldn't blame her, but still.

And she didn't need things to keep her mind off of Tom. She could do that just fine on her own. All she needed to do was think about Daphne, and wonder whether Apple would be able to arrange a meeting, and whether Daphne would be willing to listen and stop trying to carry on a one-sided fight.

Ginny kicked at the grass of the pitch. She didn't want to apologize to Daphne any more than she wanted to talk to Hagrid. But if she was planning to do one, she probably ought to do the other. Hagrid did deserve an apology.

And maybe Professor Sprout was right and pulling weeds would feel better than walking in circles.

At half past noon, Ginny raked her fingers through her hair, straightened her robes, and knocked on the door of Hagrid's small, round cottage. Paws scrabbled on a bare wood floor as Fang rushed to the door and began to whine. Something shifted and thumped, and Hagrid's floor creaked as he came to answer Ginny's knock.

He opened the door and stared down at her, clearly surprised.

"I'm sorry!" Ginny said.

Behind his beard, Hagrid's face wrinkled in confusion. "Wha' for?"

Ginny blinked. "I got you sent to Azkaban," she said. "I didn't mean to, but I told Riddle you worked here and loved dangerous animals. So it's my fault that he knew how to make the Ministry blame you."

Hagrid's face cleared. "Oh. That. Tha's not yer fault. Riddle knew wha' I'm like from way back. The momen' he knew I was here, he knew how ter get rid o' me. Don' worry about it." He stepped back from the doorway, holding Fang back with one of his legs, and waved a massive hand toward his kitchen. "Come on in. Tea?"

Ginny trailed Hagrid into the cottage and fiddled with the straps on her bag while Hagrid put a kettle on the stove, dropped a handful of dried leaves into a chipped teapot, and produced two oversized mugs from a cupboard.

"I'm still sorry," she said eventually. "People keep saying it isn't my fault, but I'm allowed to be sorry. I'm sick of everyone telling me what to think and how to feel." That was what Tom had done.

Hagrid pulled out a chair opposite her and rested his huge arms on the table. "Are we really makin' yeh feel trapped? We don' mean ter, yeh know. We jus' want yeh ter know we don' blame yeh." His face darkened. "Most o' th' teachers knew Riddle from a long time ago, an' we all remember wha' he's like. He talks all smooth, spins yer head aroun' until yeh think it makes sense ter do wha' he tells yeh ter do. But he's bad, all rotten an' black inside, so wha' he wants ain't righ'."

Ginny traced invisible lines on the table, circling around a knothole. "Yeah. But I figured out he was the Heir, and I didn't tell anyone. So everything after that is my fault as well as his. I could've stopped him anytime, just by telling Dumbledore or Professor McGonagall."

The kettle whistled and Hagrid stood from the table. "Mebbe so," he said as he poured boiling water into the teapot, "but wha's done is done, an' everyone's all righ'. Don' worry 'bout it too hard." He set the teapot on the table and opened a breadbox, pulling out a plate of what might have been meant as chocolate biscuits. "Wan' one?" he asked, waving the plate in Ginny's direction.

Ginny took one of the rock-hard, treacly biscuits and nibbled at its edge while they waited for the tea to steep. Hagrid bit down on a biscuit of his own, chewing as if the texture felt perfectly normal to him. Maybe it did - his teeth were probably as strong as the rest of him.

Steam wafted from the teapot's spout, tingeing Hagrid's kitchen with a delicate floral scent. It seemed incongruous in the rough wooden cottage with its oversized furniture.

Ginny wondered if he always drank jasmine tea, or if he kept special blends on hand in case of visitors. Come to that, did he have any visitors besides Ron, Harry, and Hermione? It seemed rude to just ask, and there was no telling if Ron and his friends knew; the boys were awfully dense sometimes, and Ginny didn't think Hermione was always very good at dealing with people. She nibbled thoughtfully at her biscuit. Charlie might know if Hagrid was lonely - he'd talked about Hagrid a lot his sixth and seventh years, all about dragons and trips into the Forbidden Forest. Actually, he'd made Hagrid sound dead cool.

And she was supposed to ask Hagrid about helping out around the grounds. She could visit him as part of that. So it didn't really matter if other people visited him; she could do the right thing regardless.

Hagrid picked up the teapot, startling Ginny from her thoughts. She cupped her hands around the mug he slid towards her and let the heat seep into her bones. "Professor Sprout said you needed-" she began, then trailed off. "Erm. Well, she said it helps to do things when you feel bad instead of sitting around feeling sorry for yourself, and she said maybe I could help you and her take care of the grounds until the end of term? Would that be all right? Do you need help, or was she just being nice?"

Hagrid set his mug back on the table and beamed at Ginny. "O' course it's all righ'! We can always use an' extra hand or two. Professor Sprout does a lot wi' magic, but plants do better when yeh touch 'em - they need th' attention or somethin'." He thumped one huge palm on the edge of the table, rattling the dishes and splashing tea over Ginny's fingers. "I tell yeh wha'. After we finish our tea, I'll set yeh to work in one o' the gardens. Would yeh like the veggies or the pretty stuff by th' main doors?"

Ginny wiped her fingers on a napkin and considered. If she said vegetables maybe she could pick up tips for Mum... but this wasn't meant to help Mum. This was for her. And she'd already got Hagrid's pumpkin spells last autumn. "Flowers," she said. "And thanks. I know you don't need to-"

"I wan' to," Hagrid said firmly. "Shush an' drink yer tea. No more bellyachin' allowed, not in my house. Yeh can tell it to th' flowers. They like bein' talked to, yeh know."

"Really?" said Ginny, leaning forward. "I told Mum the garden did better when I read books to the plants, but she said I was just imagining things. You mean I was right all along?"

Hagrid tipped back his head and laughed, a deep booming sound. "Yeah, yer righ'. Wha' did yeh read? Professor Sprout uses poetry. I jus' talk about th' weather an' stuff. I think it's voices they like, mostly - like wi' animals, they know when yeh like them, when yer tryin' ter help." He smiled at Ginny. "I had a Venomous Tentacula a few years back-"

Ginny smiled back at Hagrid, suddenly convinced that he really wouldn't mind having her tag along while he worked. She wasn't sure why she'd thought he'd be put out. Maybe it was Tom's words lingering in her mind, making her expect the worst of anyone he'd looked down on. But while Hagrid was a little simple and had a funny idea of which animals made good pets, he was a good person. An honest person. That was worth more than all Tom's clever, lying words.

Hagrid's heart was big enough to forgive her when he barely knew her and she'd sent him to Azkaban. Tom hadn't even been willing to wait for her to let him out voluntarily, when he could just kill her and forget her instead.

Enough about Tom. He was dead. She was alive.

Ginny nibbled at her biscuit and laughed as Hagrid recounted his misadventures raising carnivorous plants. Being alive hurt, but she would take the guilt and pain and confusion. Because underneath the pain, she could still find humor and friendship and love. And if she wasn't alive, Tom won.

Ginny refused to let a memory beat her.

o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o

Lockhart had been sent to St. Mungo's in hopes of curing his self-inflicted amnesia, which left no one to teach Defense Against the Dark Arts and not enough time to hire a substitute. "So who's going to teach us?" Ginny asked Apple over breakfast on Wednesday morning.

Apple swallowed a mouthful of salty porridge and said, "Nobody. Defense is canceled for the rest of term. We don't have to be anywhere this morning until Transfiguration. Hadn't you noticed we're the only two up?"

Ginny glanced around the Gryffindor table. Fourth years, seventh years, second years - she carefully did not stare at Harry, Ron, and Hermione - but no other first years. "I feel stupid."

"Stupidity and obliviousness aren't necessarily equivalent," said Apple. She paused, spoon halfway between her bowl and her mouth. "Incidentally, Daphne was calmer than I expected. Would you be willing to meet with her tonight?"

Ginny prodded at her toast with her fingernails, turning it around on her plate. "Sure. We'll be up for Astronomy anyhow. Do we still have early curfew?"

"Since the Heir is gone, it's back to normal," said Apple. "I'll tell Daphne to meet us in the trophy room at eight."

"Thanks," said Ginny, and ventured a bite of toast. The rest of breakfast passed in silence.

Ginny hid outdoors until Transfiguration, pulling dead leaves and branches off the bushes that lined the walk up to the main gates. This meant she had greenish-brown stains all over her robe and hands when she walked into Professor McGonagall's classroom, but she didn't care. Professor Sprout was right; useful work cleared her mind.

"Welcome back, Miss Weasley," said Professor McGonagall. "We're reviewing the interaction between topological and compositional changes today, but I have a different assignment for you. Sit next to Mr. Creevey and answer any questions he has over the material he missed. He has a list of tasks that would have been on your final exam, and which I will expect everyone to have mastered at the start of your second year."

Ginny dropped her bag onto the desk next to Colin and pulled out her wand. Colin poked nervously at the pile of wooden buttons on his desk. "I have to change them into brass thimbles and back again," he said. "I wasn't good at this to start with. I don't know how I'm ever going to catch up."

Ginny shrugged. "Don't look at me. I get by, but Transfiguration's never going to be my best subject. Just... hmm..." She reached across the aisle and prodded a button with her wand. "It's like baking, I think. Changing shape is easy and changing wood to metal is easy, but you have to do them together. Otherwise you're trying to layer one change on top of another, and that's lots harder than one complicated change. Sort of like you can't bake flour and eggs separately and mix them into cake afterwards - they have to bake together." She flicked her wand.

"That would probably make more sense if I knew anything about cooking," Colin said, picking up Ginny's newly transfigured thimble and sliding it onto his thumb. "Maybe it's like photography? You can't think about the light and the composition and the shutter speed and the film and stuff separately, not if you're taking action shots. You only have a couple seconds so you have to do everything at once."

Ginny shrugged again. "If you say so." She changed the thimble back to a button and gave it four holes instead of two, just to show off. "Now you try."

By the end of the period, Colin had successfully changed buttons to thimbles and was starting to get the hang of adding variations to the reversal. Professor McGonagall gave him and Ginny a mildly approving nod. "Good work, Mr. Creevey, but don't grow attached to flourishes. Focus on basics until you've reached the end of your list."

Ginny offered Colin a sheepish smile as they gathered their bags. "Oops?"

Colin laughed. "Don't worry, I like flourishes! Hey, Apple and I are going to practice charms in one of the fourth floor spare rooms - d'you want to come along?"

Ginny hesitated. She didn't want to face Apple before their meeting with Daphne tonight, and she'd had her fill of tutoring, but she'd spent all year pulling away from people because Tom wanted her to. If she kept on hiding, she'd be letting him win.

But doing things just to spite Tom would be equally stupid. She wanted to stop thinking about him every toad-licking hour.

"Not today," she said to Colin. "It's too nice out to stay inside all afternoon. I'm going down to the lake."

"Lucky you," said Colin, and waved as they parted ways.

Ginny hurried through the castle and down to the lake, trying to avoid people without looking like she was avoiding them. She summoned a halfhearted smile onto her face, hoping the twins were right and it would stop people from staring at her. As she neared the water, the smile grew closer to real - it really was a beautiful day, and the gray water of the lake seemed almost blue in places, reflecting the cloudless sky. People sat near the shore in groups and pairs, talking or studying or playing games.

Ginny picked her way between two clumps of sixth years and headed for Xanthe's willow, idly kicking stones along the gravel path as she walked. She was looking down at her feet, trying to maneuver a particularly round, rust-brown stone over a protruding root, when a voice called her name.

"Oi, Ginny!" Ron said again, waving his arms to catch her attention. He was sitting on the grassy strip between the path and the narrow beach, with Hermione to his left and Harry lying flat on his back just upslope from them. "Come talk to us."

Ginny wavered for a moment while Hermione added a smile and a wave to Ron's invitation. Then Harry rolled over, propped his chin on his folded arms, and offered a rueful shrug. Ginny sighed. She wanted to act normal - she had to start somewhere, right?

"What were you talking about?" she asked as she sat between Ron and Harry.

Ron flicked a blade of grass with his finger and thumb. "Not much, just stuff. Did you know Hermione's going to France this summer?"

"Oh? Where? North, south, Paris...?" Ginny wrapped her arms around her knees and looked curiously at Hermione. France wasn't much as foreign travel went, but Ginny hadn't even been out of England until she'd come to Hogwarts, which was sad when she had brothers in Egypt and Romania.

Hermione bit her lip as if she were worried or upset, which was odd - or maybe not, on second thought. After all, Hermione had lost months of her life to Tom and the Basilisk, and then she'd found out all the madness Harry and Ron had got up to while she wasn't around to keep an eye on them. That combination might shake anyone.

"Normandy to start with," said Hermione, "mostly the war sites. Then Nancy and Strasbourg for two weeks, and we'll probably spend a weekend in Paris on our way home."

"Have you been before?" Harry asked, unfolding one arm and shoving his glasses up his nose. "The Dursleys were planning to go to Majorca a few years ago, but Dudley caught chicken pox and it all fell through."

"Tough luck," said Ron.

Harry laughed. "I missed out on two weeks of staying with the mad cat lady across the street." He raised his eyebrows at the others' questioning looks. "Of course they weren't going to take me. But it would've been nice to have some time to myself and I don't see what's so special about travel anyway."

"Well, I've never been to France," said Hermione with a determined tone, "but I'm sure it will be educational. What about you, Ron? Have you ever left Britain?"

Ginny and Ron shared a sidelong glance. "No," Ginny answered for them both. "But Charlie's been making noises about having us visit, so maybe in a few years we'll go to Romania and see the dragon reserve."

Hermione frowned thoughtfully. "Didn't one of your classmates go there this summer? I'm sure I heard someone talking about that in the common room ages ago."

"That was Apple Rumluck - she went with her cousin, Daphne," said Ginny. "Can we not talk about them?" She had to face Daphne soon enough, and she needed to stay calm so Daphne couldn't twist her around. The last thing she needed to do was get worked up over the beginning of their fight.

"Why?" asked Ron, as a frown crept over his face. "Are they giving you a hard time over... er, over stuff?"

Not this again. "You can't blame every problem in my life on To- on Riddle," Ginny snapped. "Daphne's a toad-licking cow, and she'd still be a toad-licking cow no matter what happened to me this year. Which I am trying to get over, all right? I was having a good day until you brought it up again. Can't you let me get on with my life?"

"Yeah, Ron, let it go," agreed Harry. "It's too nice a day to think about that mess."

"Exactly," said Ginny. She ventured a smile at Harry. The expression was starting to feel less foreign on her face, less false, even if she didn't always mean it whole-heartedly. That was a good sign, right?

"Hermione's going to France and I'm going to put up with the Dursleys," Harry said, rolling back over to face the sky. "What are you and Ron doing for the summer, Ginny?"

"Gardening," Ginny said, at the same moment that Ron said, "De-gnoming the garden."

They looked at each other and laughed. "It's a big garden," Ginny continued. "There are lots of other chores - feeding the chickens, tending the compost, stuff like that. And we'll go visit Uncle Edward and Aunt Bernice for a week or two, since we didn't see them at Christmas. Probably Aunt Charlotte too." She shrugged.

Ron picked up the thread. "When Mum lets us, or when we can sneak out, we'll swim in the river or play pick-up Quidditch with Cedric Diggory who lives on the other side of the village. There's always stuff to do - card games, chess, hide and seek with Horace the ghoul. You know, having fun."

Ginny caught Hermione's disapproving expression and added, "And schoolwork, of course, but there's no need to kill ourselves over it. What's the point of summer if you stay inside swotting all day?"

"Exactly," said Ron. He leaned over and tucked a stray hank of Ginny's hair behind her ears. "You're really happy, Ginny?"

She tipped backwards until she was lying flat on the grass, her whole body open to the warmth and light of the sun, and laughed - it was that or scream. "Yeah, sure. Now shut up and let me enjoy the afternoon."

Ron might have pushed further, but fortunately Hermione distracted him by asking what he meant by playing hide and seek with a ghoul - did the Weasleys really treat a ghoul like a pet, and wasn't there something vaguely wrong about keeping a semi-sentient creature shut up in their attic? Ginny closed her eyes and drifted into an uneasy doze, one arm flung over her head to shield her face from the sun.

A few hours later somebody shook her shoulder, jolting her back to full awareness. She blinked up at Harry's amused face. "Hi," he said. "It's nearly time for dinner."

"Thanks," Ginny mumbled, scrubbing the heels of her palms against her eyes to clear out the sticky residue of sleep. "Sorry I wasn't good company." Dinner sounded awful; she was too nervous to eat. She should go wash up instead, to make sure she was awake enough to deal with Daphne. Would Ron notice if she snuck off?

Harry's wry grin widened, and he held out his hand. "Don't worry about it," he said as he pulled Ginny upright. "I'm just glad you're happy again. I guess I'll see you around sometimes now that you're back to yourself?"

Ginny stared blankly at him. Harry didn't really believe she was fine just because she said she was, did he? He'd been in the Chamber. He'd seen Tom - he'd talked to Tom - he should know how Tom could twist everything upside-down and backwards and make horrible things seem true and right. He should know how strong the spells on the diary had been.

But... she was getting better. She was. And if she told Harry she wasn't all right, he'd tell Ron who'd tell the rest of the family, and then she'd be right back to being smothered. She couldn't take that again. She'd go mad.

"Yes," she said to Harry, "I guess you will see me around more. I have to keep an eye on Ron - Mum's always telling me not to let him do anything stupid. I think it's a lost cause, but at least he's not usually boring."

Harry laughed. "I'll tell him you said that. Come on, Ron and Hermione are nearly back to the castle." He tugged on Ginny's hand.

Ginny flushed and let go, quickly. "Okay. Erm. Race you?" She took off running before Harry had a chance to respond.

She wasn't fine, not yet, but if she lied about it hard enough, maybe this time the lie would come true.

o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o

AN: Thank you for reading, and please review! I appreciate all feedback, but I'm particularly interested in knowing what parts of the story worked for you, what parts didn't, and why.