Oh, Ginny thinks, the first time she hears a snake hiss about wishing for a nice fat frog. Oh. I'm not completely me, still.
Ginny clenches her eyes shut, hoping desperately that it's just a fluke. Maybe it's a magical, talking snake that has gotten loose in the English countryside, drawn by their most recent gnome infestation. Peeking one eye open, she has to concentrate hard to notice the snake. She'd walked farther than she'd meant to, all the way to the stream that's the halfway point to Luna's house.
She hasn't seen Luna yet; it's still the first week of summer holidays. Luna's been out of school for three days, while Ginny's been here a week. Professor Dumbledore let her parents take her home right away after the chamber and Professor McGonagall said she'll come by to work out a schedule for Ginny to retake her final exams by the end of summer. Tom hadn't been very interested in letting her study, after all.
"He's not back," Ginny whispers to herself, staring at the dark green body of the snake. From her spot she can just see some of the dark spots on its left side. "It's just… leftovers."
"What did you say?" the snake hisses.
"Nothing," Ginny squeaks. "Nothing. Go on. There's nothing interesting here."
The snake gives her a long look, flicks its tongue at her, and slips away.
Her heart is trying to beat its way out of her chest. It takes a long time for Ginny to be able to stand up and start the trek home.
What do I tell Mum and Dad? she can't help but think. Her first impulse is to just tell them nothing.
She quashes that impulse as best as she can. Last year… it was mostly Tom, she knows. It was. But a part of it was her, it was her wanting to have something secret, something just for her. It was you'd fit into Slytherin and the convincing she'd had to do that Slytherin really wasn't for her.
I'll tell them, Ginny thinks. I will.
As she exits the forest and walks along the path home, she can see the Burrow in front of her. The kitchen windows face outwards and she can just see her mum making dinner. She's humming, maybe singing.
They'll worry again, Ginny thinks, opening the door.
And what if it's permanent and everyone hates her for it? What if she's expelled? If she gets expelled she won't be able to talk to Luna every day or see Harry. It'll be as lonely at home as the year when she'd been the last Weasley kid yet to leave for Hogwarts.
"Ginny, is that you?"
"Dinner's in an hour. Tell the twins they better not be doing what I think they're doing!" Molly pokes her head out. "And wash up, you're all dirty, sweetheart. Were you out with Luna again?"
"Sorry, Mum," Ginny says, because if she says no, her mum will ask why, and Ginny will have to talk about why.
She likes not talking. Look at how much she talked with Tom and see how that turned out.
But her mum's already shaking her head and turning back to the oven, so Ginny scampers upstairs. She knocks on Fred and George's room and calls, "Mum says to cut it out!"
There's a suspicious slurping sound instead of an answer. Any other time Ginny would try to force herself inside their room and see what they're up to. Most of the time, they even tell her after making her swear to never ever tell Mum.
Her room is the smallest in the house, with barely enough space to move around in, but it's just hers, perfect for doing super-secret stuff.
Except of course she's not alone, judging by the squeaking sound behind her dresser. Ginny glances over and yup, there's Scabbers on top of a pile of stolen cheese. He has a stash in what seems like every room of the house.
Must you, Scabbers? Ginny thinks rather irritably, because there'll be ants next. And then there'll be her mum taking ages to decontaminate her room.
She's too busy to do anything about it, though, so Ginny just sits down cross-legged onto her bed and starts to experiment with parseltongue. If she's going to hide this forever and ever—except maybe from her parents, she could probably, maybe tell them eventually—she has to learn to control it. And that means no accidental hisses whenever she thinks of snakes.
Ginny takes a deep breath and thinks back on the snake from the stream.
"I hate Tom so, so much," she says.
It sounds like English, but then it had sounded like English earlier, too. And Harry had said the same thing about parseltongue; he'd thought he was speaking English that day at the dueling tournament.
She needs a practice partner. Not a human, but maybe she could bring a snake back here. Then it could tell her if she was speaking parseltongue or not.
Ginny tries again, thinking of the snake and talking about what's on her mind (this, mostly, but also her family and Luna and maybe Harry Potter).
And then she hears someone behind her say, "My lord?"
"Yess?" Ginny hisses angrily, turning around. If a snake has managed to follow her into her room, that's so over the line—
It's not a snake. It's a man, crouching next to her dresser.
Ginny stares at him, her eyes wide.
(With the way the low lights catch her brown eyes, Ginny's eyes look almost red. To herself, Ginny is an average girl just caught up in a couple things. To the man, she looks terrifying, her eyes bright and the language of the snakes still on her lips.)
"You—" she begins, and stops, her voice feeling strange and raspy after all the parseltongue practice.
The man immediately gets onto his knees and prostrates himself in front of her. "My lord, forgive me for stumbling onto your plans! I knew you couldn't have been defeated in the chamber of secrets. You have a much deeper plan at work! I knew the wench was you the moment I heard you speak."
"I am most displeased," Ginny says, trying to copy the dark lords from the novels she'd loved to read before Hogwarts. Oh Merlin, who is this crazy person?
"You may deal with me as you wish! But my lord, I have a decade's worth of information on the light, I have done it all for you."
Ginny inches backwards. "I have something to take care of first, and then I will be back for you. Stay here and await my return. If you leave, I will track you down."
The man nods hurriedly and stands up. "Of course, my lord. Anything for you, my lord."
"Don't sit on my bed," Ginny tells him when it looks like he might. Because really, as scary as this is, the man looks kinda gross.
She takes the stairs two at a time until she's in the kitchen. Ginny is so glad her mum is home; she'll know what to do.
"Mum," Ginny whispers. "Mum."
Molly turns around, instantly quitting her song. "Ginny? Are you alright?"
Ginny swallows. "I can speak parseltongue. Also there's a creepy man in my bedroom who thinks I'm Voldemort."
She says the first part quickly, but takes more time with the second part. Maybe her mum won't even notice. From the way Molly looks at her, it hasn't worked, but her mum doesn't linger on the parseltongue bit.
Molly grabs her wand, pauses all the motion in the kitchen with a flick, and walks carefully up the steps. Ginny follows behind with her own wand. She could probably turn the man into a needle if she tries hard enough. And she's heard the story about the troll only ten thousand times; she can copy Ron. Her mum tries to wave her away, but Ginny only scowls at her and holds her wand higher. She's not letting her mum in a battle alone.
Eventually Molly presses a finger to her lips and concentrates on Ginny's door, which is open a couple centimeters.
She opens it confidently and yells, "Stupefy," before Ginny can even see anything.
"Well, that wasn't too shabby," Molly says.
Ginny peeks around her. The same man is lying motionless in her bedroom. But, "He fell onto my bed."
"We'll wash the blanket, honey," Molly says before levitating him downstairs. She knocks on Percy's door. "Percy, come and help me with something!"
"Is it interesting?" comes from Fred and George's room.
"Cauldron bottoms are very interesting!" Molly calls back.
There is no response.
The levitation spell lays the strange man gently onto the living room carpet. Ginny sits down on the couch and points her wand down at the man.
Percy's downstairs a minute later, his notes on cauldron bottoms in his hands. "If you want to talk about switching to Grenk cooking cauldrons, I highly approve of—" He pauses, staring down. "This isn't about cauldron bottoms."
"I need an extra wand hand and you're less excitable than the others," Molly says, but apologetically adds, "Tell me everything about Grenk cauldrons later tonight, alright?"
"Of course," Percy agrees and sits down beside Ginny while Molly throws floo powder into the fireplace and starts a floo call with the auror department. He matches her gesture, pointing his wand at the man. "What happened?"
"I think he's Scabbers," Ginny says. She's been thinking about it. There hadn't been a man in her room at first, and then afterwards, there hadn't been Scabbers. "I think this man was pretending to be him for some reason. Like Tom was pretending to be a diary."
Percy's other hand takes hers. It's awkward with the way they're sitting and they're both right handed, but it's nice. "He was in your bedroom?"
There's something intense in Percy's expression, completely different from the intensity he gets around books.
"I didn't know he was there," she tells him, because he might be angry at her. No one has been—everyone's just been angry at Tom—but she keeps worrying about it all the same. "He—he thought I was You-Know-Who."
Percy's hand tightens around hers. "And you know that's not true?"
"I'm definitely not him," Ginny agrees. Maybe she has a bit of him left in her, but accidentally cast magic eventually fades. "I think I'd be much better with spells if I was You-Know-Who."
"Exactly," Percy says.
They wait for what feels like ages, but really can't be all that long. The man stays unconscious even after a couple aurors and Arthur step through the floo with a loud whoosh.
He must've already been notified, because the first thing her dad does is wrap her up in a tight hug.
"I'm so glad you're safe," Arthur says, patting her back.
"It wasn't that scary. He wasn't as bad as Tom." Nothing is going to be as scary as Tom again, she knows. But maybe this was pretty close.
"Parseltongue?" Arthur asks. He doesn't sound mad, just confused.
"I was going to tell you after dinner," Ginny says. It's not even a lie because really, it's not like she'd made up her mind either way. She could've told her parents after dinner.
"It's alright," Arthur says. "We'll deal with it. I'll talk to Albus first thing in the morning."
The man is taken away—someone says doesn't he look a bit like Peter Pettigrew, just older and heavier? but the name doesn't mean anything to Ginny—without too much of a fuss. Ginny gets her statement taken by a nice older auror who tells her she was very brave. The woman turns to her mum next to get her side of the story, but Ginny doesn't leave the room, trying to be as small as possible so no one kicks her out. She wants to know everything that happens.
By now the others have gone in and out of the living room—Fred and George looked sincerely disappointed to have missed out on the fun, while Ron joined her in looking freaked out.
"Why does Ginny keep having all the cool adventures?" Fred had asked no one in particular.
Eventually, there's no one home but family.
"Dinner?" Ginny asks hopefully, because Fred and George look like they want another retelling of the story.
Molly shakes her head. "Leaky Cauldron takeout, I think; everything's still half-cooked."
"I don't mind," Ginny says quickly. Mum's cooking is the best, but the Leaky's food is so good and greasy. They'll eat, and then she'll go upstairs up to her room and sleep and— "Can Luna come and stay the night?"
Her parents share a glance. Ginny wants to shout that she's not scared, alright, she's not a little kid.
"Of course," Molly says. "Let me just give Xenophilius a call and see if they're home."
Ginny sits on the couch and waits, worrying the sleeves of her robes. Tom hadn't just made a mess of her studies. Her social life last year had been the worst.
She'd made such a bad first impression on her roommates, suspiciously ducking around and writing furiously into a diary all year. She'd barely ever said anything to them and even that had been mostly hi and good day? Luna is still her friend, but even Luna got sad when Ginny kept missing most of their hanging out times. Luna mostly got sad rather than angry, which is even worse.
(The day before Ginny was set to go to Hogwarts, Mum had carefully said that she wanted to make new friends, it was okay. Friendships change over time; she just had to do it while making sure she kept Luna's feelings in mind. Which was just silly advice. Lots of Mum's advice was silly, so Ginny didn't feel bad at all about ignoring it. Luna was her best friend. She was going to continue being her best friend forever and ever, she'd thought. And then she'd been the worst friend ever.)
When Molly lifts her head up from the floo again, she says, "She'll be right over. Let me just check your room over and you two can even make a pillow fort, just like you used to."
"We're too old for that," Ginny lies, but she's cut off by the floo glowing green again.
Luna pops out with a skip in her step. Her robes are sunshine yellow and there's a flower woven into her braid.
Ginny's missed her so much.
"Hi," Ginny says, standing up. "I—sorry for ignoring you all year."
Luna hugs her, and her hair smells like the sweetest of flowers. "You were taken hostage by nargles, it's alright. I wanted to tell you that last week but they said you'd already gone home."
"I won't ignore you ever again," Ginny promises.
"Even at Hogwarts?"
"Anywhere," Ginny says. Parseltongue or no parseltongue, she's not possessed. She knows how that feels too well. She's never leaving Luna behind again. "Let's go make our fort again. Mum demolished the old one when I left for school but we can make this one even better."
Luna's smile is the best thing she's seen all week.
And besides, being mistaken for the very powerful Lord Voldemort is kinda doing great things for Ginny's self-confidence.