Title: The Serpent's Riddle
Authors: hoshi-tachi and Krystal
Category: AU Harry Potter
Series: first in the Dark Lord Chronicles
Pairings: None as of yet.
Spoilers: SS, CoS, eventually PoA and GoF
Summary: What do you do when all you ever thought was true may not be, that your friends are enemies, and your enemies friends? A slightly different encounter in a bookshop is about to force Harry to confront just that.
Warnings: Child neglect, some mild profanity.
Disclaimer: We don't own Harry Potter. Just like we don't own our own private jets or RPG launchers, despite mucho pleading with our respective parents, and just like we don't own the various Rowling quotes scattered throughout the story. Got it? Good.
A/N 1: Go ahead and skip the italicized stuff if you'd prefer- it's directly from the book.
Clutching his broken glasses to his face, Harry stared around. He had emerged into a dingy alleyway that seemed to be made up entirely of shops devoted to the Dark Arts. The one he'd just left, Borgin and Burkes, looked like the largest, but opposite was a nasty window display of shrunken heads and, two doors down, a large cage was alive with gigantic black spiders. Two shabby-looking wizards were watching him from the shadow of a doorway, muttering to each other. Feeling jumpy, Harry set off, trying to hold his glasses on straight and hoping against hope he'd be able to find a way out of here.
An old wooden street sign hanging over a shop selling poisonous candles told him he was in Knockturn Alley. This didn't help, as Harry had never heard of such a place. He supposed he hadn't spoken clearly enough through his mouth full of ashes back in the Weasleys' fire. Trying to stay calm, he wondered what to do.
"Not lost are you, my dear?" said a voice in his ear, making him jump.
An aged witch stood in front of him, holding a tray of what looked horribly like whole human fingernails. She leered at him, showing mossy teeth. Harry backed away.
"I'm fine, thanks," he said. "I'm just-"
"HARRY! What d'yeh think yer doin' down there?"
Harry's heart leapt. So did the witch; a load of fingernails cascaded down over her feet and she cursed as the massive form of Hagrid, the Hogwarts gamekeeper, came striding toward them, beetle-black eyes flashing over his great bristling beard.
"Hagrid!" Harry croaked in relief. "I was lost-- Floo powder--"
Hagrid seized Harry by the scruff of the neck and pulled him away from the witch, knocking the tray right out of her hands. Her shrieks followed them all the way along the twisting alleyway out into bright sunlight. Harry saw a familiar, snow-white marble building in the distance—Gringotts Bank. Hagrid had steered him right into Diagon Alley.
"Yer a mess!" Hagrid said gruffly, brushing soot off Harry so forcefully he nearly knocked him into a barrel of dragon dung outside an apothecary. "Skulkin' around Knockturn Alley, I dunno—dodgy place, Harry—don' want no one ter see yeh down there--"
"I realized that," said Harry, ducking as Hagrid made to brush him off again. "I told you, I was lost—what were you doing down there, anyway?"
"I was lookin' fer a Flesh-Eatin' Slug Repellent," growled Hagrid. "They're ruinin' the school cabbages. Yer not on yer own?"
"I'm staying with the Weasleys but we got separated," Harry explained. "I've got to go and find them..."
They set off together down the street.
"How come yeh never wrote back ter me?" said Hagrid as Harry jogged alongside him (he had to take three steps to every stride of Hagrid's enormous boots). Harry explained all about Dobby and the Dursleys.
"Lousy Muggles," growled Hagrid. "If I'd've known--"
"Harry! Harry! Over here!"
Harry looked up and saw Hermione Granger standing at the top of the white flight of steps to Gringotts. She ran down to meet them, her bushy brown hair flying behind her.
"What happened to your glasses? Hello, Hagrid— Oh, it's wonderful to see you two again-- Are you coming into Gringotts, Harry?"
"As soon as I've found the Weasleys," said Harry.
"Yeh won't have long ter wait," Hagrid said with a grin.
Harry and Hermione looked around: Sprinting up the crowded street were Ron, Fred, George, Percy, and Mr. Weasley.
"Harry," Mr. Weasley panted. "We hoped you'd only gone one grate too far..." He mopped his glistening bald patch. "Molly's frantic—she's coming now--"
"Where did you come out?" Ron asked.
"Knockturn Alley," said Hagrid grimly.
"Excellent!" said Fred and George together.
"We've never been allowed in," said Ron enviously.
"I should ruddy well think not," growled Hagrid.
Mrs. Weasley now came galloping into view, her handbag swinging wildly in one hand, Ginny just clinging onto the other.
"Oh, Harry—oh, my dear—you could have been anywhere--"
Gasping for breath she pulled a large clothes brush out of her bag and began sweeping off the soot Hagrid hadn't managed to beat away. Mr. Weasley took Harry's glasses, gave them a tap of his wand, and returned them, good as new.
"Well, gotta be off," said Hagrid, who was having his hand wrung by Mrs. Weasley ("Knockturn Alley! If you hadn't found him, Hagrid!"). "See yer at Hogwarts!" And he strode away, head and shoulders taller than anyone else in the packed street.
"Guess who I saw in Borgin and Burkes?" Harry asked Ron and Hermione as they climbed the Gringotts steps. "Malfoy and his father."
"Did Lucius Malfoy buy anything?" said Mr. Weasley sharply behind them.
"No, he was selling--"
"So he's worried," said Mr. Weasley with grim satisfaction. "Oh, I'd love to get Lucius Malfoy for something..."
"You be careful, Arthur," said Mrs. Weasley sharply as they were bowed into the bank by a goblin at the door. "That family's trouble. Don't go off biting more than you can chew--"
"So you don't think I'm a match for Lucius Malfoy?" said Mr. Weasley indignantly, but he was distracted almost at once by the sight of Hermione's parents, who were standing nervously at the counter that ran all along the great marble hall, waiting for Hermione to introduce them.
"But you're Muggles!" said Mr. Weasley delightedly. "We must have a drink! What's that you've got there? Oh, you're changing Muggle money. Molly, look!" He pointed excitedly at the ten-pound notes in Mr. Granger's hand.
"Meet you back here," Ron said to Hermione as the Weasleys and Harry were led off to their underground vaults by another Gringotts goblin.
The vaults were reached by means of small, goblin-driven carts that sped along miniature train tracks through the bank's underground tunnels. Harry enjoyed the breakneck journey down to the Weasleys' vault, but felt dreadful, far worse than he had in Knockturn Alley, when it was opened. There was a very small pile of silver Sickles inside, and just one gold Galleon. Mrs. Weasley felt right into the corners before sweeping the whole lot into her bag. Harry felt even worse when they reached his vault. He tried to block the contents from view as he hastily shoved handfuls of coins into a leather bag.
Back outside on the marble steps, they all separated. Percy muttered vaguely about needing a new quill. Fred and George had spotted their friend from Hogwarts, Lee Jordan. Mrs. Weasley and Ginny were going to a secondhand robe shop. Mr. Weasley was insisting on taking the Grangers off to the Leaky Cauldron for a drink.
"We'll all meet at Flourish and Blotts in an hour to buy your schoolbooks," said Mrs. Weasley, setting off with Ginny. "And not one step down Knockturn Alley!" she shouted at the twins' retreating backs.
Harry, Ron, and Hermione strolled off along the winding, cobbled street. The bag of gold, silver, and bronze jangling cheerfully in Harry's pocket was clamoring to be spent, so he bought them large strawberry-and-peanut-butter ice creams, which they slurped happily as they wandered up the alley, examining the fascinating shop windows. Ron gazed longingly at a full set of Chudley Cannon robes in the windows of Quality Quidditch Supplies until Hermione dragged them off to buy ink and parchment next door. In Gambol and Japes Wizarding Joke Shop, they met Fred, George, and Lee Jordan, who were stocking up on Dr. Filibuster's Fabulous Wet-Start, No-Heat Fireworks, and in a tiny junk shop full of broken wands, lopsided brass scales, and old cloaks covered in potion stains they found Percy, deeply immersed in a small and deeply boring book called Prefects Who Gained Power. "A study of Hogwarts prefects and their later careers," Ron read aloud off the back cover. "That sounds fascinating..."
"Go away," Percy snapped.
"'Course, he's very ambitious. Percy, he's got it all planned out... He wants to be Minister of Magic..." Ron told Harry and Hermione in an undertone as they left Percy to it.
An hour later, they headed for Flourish and Blotts. They were by no means the only ones making their way to the bookshop. As they approached it, they saw to their surprise a large crowd jostling outside the doors, trying to get in. The reason for this was proclaimed by a large banner stretched across the upper windows:
will be signing copies of his autobiography
today 12:30 P.M. to 4:30 P.M.
"We can actually meet him!" Hermione squealed. "I mean, he's written almost the whole booklist!"
The crowd seemed to be made up mostly of witches around Mrs. Weasley's age. A harassed-looking wizard stood at the door, saying, "Calmly, please, ladies... Don't push, there... mind the books, now..."
Harry, Ron, and Hermione squeezed inside. A long line wound right to the back of the shop, where Gilderoy Lockhart was signing his books. They each grabbed a copy of TheStandardized Book of Spells, Grade 2 and sneaked up the line to where the rest of the Weasleys were standing with Mr. and Mrs. Granger.
"Oh, there you are, good," said Mrs. Weasley. She sounded breathless and kept patting her hair. "We'll be able to see him in a minute..."
Gilderoy Lockhart came slowly into view, seated at a table surrounded by large pictures of his own face, all winking and flashing dazzlingly white teeth at the crowd. The real Lockhart was wearing robes of forget-me-not blue that exactly matched his eyes; his pointed wizard's hat was set at a jaunty angle on his wavy hair.
A short, irritable-looking man was dancing around taking photographs with a large black camera that emitted puffs of purple smoke with every blinding flash.
"Out of the way, there," he snarled at Ron, moving back to get a better shot. "This is for the Daily Prophet--"
"Big deal," said Ron, rubbing his foot where the photographer had stepped on it.
Gilderoy Lockhart heard him. He looked up. He saw Ron—and then he saw Harry. He stared. Then he leapt to his feet and positively shouted, "It can't be Harry Potter?" (1)
Harry cringed as he felt every eye in the shop turn towards him. And the day had been turning out so well...
Then Lockhart was beside him, grabbing him by the arm, and the Boy-Who-Lived found himself being dragged to the back of the room. His protests were drowned out by their audience's applause, but the photographer immortalized Harry's burning cheeks with a quick flash of his camera.
"Nice, big smile, Harry," Lockhart murmured through his grin, shaking his hand for the crowd. "Together, you and I are worth the front page."
Harry looked at him in disbelief. He could feel his fingers going numb by the time the blonde wizard released his hand. The boy attempted to flee back to the safety of his adopted family, but Lockhart took him by the shoulders and turned them both to face the cameras.
"Ladies and gentlemen," he proclaimed with an extravagant flourish of his free hand, "what an extraordinary moment this is! The perfect moment for me to make a little announcement I've been sitting on for some time!" He gazed around lovingly at the gathered crowd, the brilliant smile firmly in place. "When young Harry here stepped into Flourish and Blotts today, he only wanted to buy my autobiography—which I shall be happy to present to him now, free of charge--"
The witches crammed into the room applauded, while Harry wondered just how far up his own arse Lockhart's head was. He'd never even heard of the damn book until a few minutes ago.
"He had no idea that he would shortly be getting much, much more than my book, Magical Me. He and his schoolmates will, in fact, be getting the real magical me." The smile widened, reminding Harry strongly of a shark's grin, as the crowd gasped. "Yes, ladies and gentlemen, I have great pleasure and pride in announcing that this September, I will be taking up the post of Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry!"
The Boy-Who-Lived flinched as the shop rang with the approving roar of the crowd. Lockhart beckoned towards a man standing off to the side, and within seconds Harry had had every single book ever written by the blonde-haired git shoved into his hands. Feeling the strain in his arms, he struggled with the temptation to 'accidentally' drop the enormous stack onto Lockhart's foot.
Then he reconsidered, listening to the still-cheering crowd. If he did, he'd probably find himself torn apart by the enraged mass.
Then, at last, Lockhart let him escape back to the Weasleys. The crowd parted, doing its best to get him through before the pile of books in his arms fell on somebody's head. Flushing, Harry opened his mouth to offer the books to Ginny, since she'd need them for the coming school year, and he could always buy his own.
At that moment, however, he felt something catch his ankle, and he went down in a shower of flapping pages. He lay there for a second, the hard floor having driven the breath right out of him, and listened to the titters and concerned cries rising from the other customers.
"Really, Potter, no need to grovel. You're already low enough without kissing the ground."
Harry felt a chill go through him. Slowly, he raised himself to his hands and knees, and saw the hem of a black robe directly in front of him. His eyes followed the robes upwards, and eventually focused on the pale-moon face above them. Draco Malfoy sneered down at him, and Harry knew, without a doubt, that the other boy had been the one who had tripped him.
The twelve-year-old rose to his feet, emerald eyes lit by a flame from within. "Malfoy," he said coldly, ignoring Ginny's wide-eyed looks between them.
Malfoy smirked at the Gryffindor's obvious anger. "Bet you loved that, didn't you, Potter? Can't even go into a bookshop without getting your picture plastered all over the front page. Of course, this time you had to sponge off of someone else's fame to manage it, eh, Scarhead?"
Harry stepped forward, fully intending to plant his clenched fist right where that smirk creased Malfoy's lips. But just as he was about to pull back for the punch, that same smooth, icy voice he'd heard in Borgin and Burkes spoke from behind. "Why, Draco, is this one of your schoolmates?"
Startled, Harry turned around to see Lucius Malfoy standing there, and Ron and Hermione pushing their way through the crowded shop to join them.
Malfoy Jr. nodded, the sneer returning. "This is Harry Potter, Father."
"I see..." the man said quietly to himself. He studied the boy carefully, his thoughts locked away behind his blank mask of a face.
"Oy, what are you doing here?" Ron demanded, his freckled face flushing as he glared at the Slytherin.
Malfoy returned the look with a contemptuous one of his own. "Why, Weasel, am I no longer permitted to buy my schoolbooks? Should I simply order them from a catalogue, and never set foot in Diagon Alley again?" He looked thoughtful for a moment. "That isn't a bad idea, actually. I'd be able to go the entire summer without seeing your pathetic face again."
"Now, now, Draco. You must at least be polite to your schoolmates, as... difficult as it may be." Lucius Malfoy knelt and plucked one of Harry's books off the floor. He paged through it slowly, the faintest of smiles on his face as he was apparently amused by its contents.
"As you wish, Father," Malfoy said, giving his senior a little bow. "So," he began mockingly, "has your father managed to make any decent money yet, or are you as poor as always?"
His face by now an ugly brick-red, Ron lunged at the blonde, only to have his arms nearly pulled out of their sockets as Harry and Hermione each grabbed one to hold him back. "Lemme go, I'm gonna pound his face in so far he'll see through the back of his skull!"
"'Ere, now, what's all this about? You two aren't fightin', are yeh?" the shop proprietor asked, having appeared by their elbows like magic, with Mr. Weasley at his shoulder.
Both twelve-year-olds hesitated, faced with the sudden intrusion of authority.
"No fight, Mr. Blotts," Lucius Malfoy said smoothly, moving between the owner and the group of children. "Merely boys showing their spirits."
Mr. Blotts took a step back, face paling. "M-Mr. Malfoy! What... I'm delighted to see you here, sir! I-I apologize if I... interrupted anything." Still practically groveling, he vanished back into the mob of customers waiting to get their books signed.
Mr. Weasley watched him go, the faintest of scowls on his face. "Lucius," he said stiffly, nodding his head to his fellow Ministry worker.
Malfoy Sr. returned the nod with a little smile. "Arthur. How... pleasant to see you again."
The redhead's lips tightened. "I'm sure."
If anything, Malfoy's smile simply grew, changing into a smirk on the way. "Come, Draco. Your mother is expecting us, and 'twould be a shame to disappoint her." He turned to Harry, handing him the book he'd picked up off of the floor. "It was a pleasure to meet you, Mr. Potter."
And with that, the Malfoys were gone.
Harry scooped the last bite of the hash browns into his mouth and washed it down with a quick gulp of pumpkin juice.
"All done, dear?"
The dark-haired boy looked up into the matron's gentle face and nodded. "Yes, Mrs. Weasley. Thank you, that was wonderful!"
She flushed with pleasure at the compliment, but still frowned at him anyway. "Are you sure, dearie? Three weeks of my food, and you're still nothing but skin and bones. Did those muggles never feed you?" she wondered absentmindedly.
Harry blushed, dropping his eyes to his empty plate. "I don't think I could eat another bite," he said truthfully, even if it wasn't the answer to what she was really asking.
After all, how could he explain years of being half-starved by the Dursleys? How could he tell his best friend's mother, and who seemed to be rapidly taking the place of Lily Potter, that his family was, if not downright abusive, at least neglectful?
He couldn't. So instead he reassured her that he was fine several times over, and added a few more compliments on her cooking to distract the mothering woman.
"Well, alright," Mrs. Weasley said doubtfully, reaching for his plate. She walked over and put it in the sink for the dishwashing spell to take care of. "I just so hate seeing you walk around looking like a stiff wind would push you over."
Harry blushed again, standing up and pushing his chair back in. "I guess I just have a fast metabolism?" he offered with a shrug. "Nothing I eat ever seems to stick."
Mrs. Weasley nodded thoughtfully at that. "Ronald must be the same way. With the amount of food he shovels into his mouth..." she shook her head fondly. "Of course, he won't get anything for breakfast if he doesn't ever get out of bed!"
Lips twitching, Harry followed her gaze up the stairs. "I'm sure he'll wake up... eventually. I mean, he can't sleep forever... can he?"
Mrs. Weasley snorted, and stated a number, in hours, that made Harry's jaw drop.
"You're kidding." The older witch gave him a Look. "But... no one can sleep for that long! It isn't possible!" Blinking, the boy stopped to reconsider. "Well, unless you're using the Draught of the Living Death, but that's a special case."
Mrs. Weasley smiled at him indulgently, and Harry felt the shadow of a doubt enter his mind as he remembered just how hard it could be to wake Ron up sometimes. "Maybe," he conceded reluctantly.
The experienced mother nodded in satisfaction. "What are you going to do today?" she asked, changing the subject now that she had tasted victory. "I'm afraid there isn't much to do until Ron comes down, what with Ginny and the rest of the boys off with their friends."
Harry grimaced ruefully. "I need to finish my homework anyway. The Dursleys locked up all of my books at the beginning of summer, so I haven't gotten a chance to work on it. Hermione'll kill me if I show up at school without even touching any of it."
Mrs. Weasley seemed pleased. "Such a responsible boy," she said, reaching out to ruffle his already hopelessly messy hair, and he blushed. "Now, why don't you take your books on outside and work on the picnic table? That way you'll have plenty of room, and the sunlight will do you some good. You're far too pale!"
And so it was that a few minutes later found Harry depositing his last armful of books onto the old, weathered table. Sighing in relief, he plopped himself down on the bench, and then stopped, eyes wide.
Had he just been relieved that he could finally work on his homework?
Harry buried his head in his arms with a groan. Dear Merlin, he was turning into Hermione...
No, he tried to tell himself. He wasn't turning into Hermione. He couldn't be. The world couldn't possibly support the weight of the required IQs of two such individuals. No, he was just... glad that the aforementioned brunette would have no excuse to figuratively trail his small intestine through the halls of Hogwarts.
Yes, that was it. Harry nodded happily, glad the situation had been resolved, and reached for his nearest assignment. He grimaced as it turned out to be the Defense Against the Dark Arts assignment that Professor Dumbledore had assigned in light of Quirrell's... misfortune. Mind you, he didn't really think it was a bad class- in fact, he suspected that with the right teacher, it would be a truly fascinating course, but with that, that... traitor teaching it last year, the Boy-Who-Lived held no love for the DADA.
And it didn't look like there was much hope for it this year, either. Not with that git Lockhart as the new professor.
Sighing, Harry read over the assignment, and blinked. Explain the physical, magical, and cultural similarities and differences between pixies and wood faeries in three feet of parchment, he read again, dismayed. He'd heard of pixies, of course, but wood faeries were a complete mystery to the Muggle-raised wizard. And he was supposed to write three feet on them?
With another groan, he probed the large stack of books on the table in front of him for anything that might be able to help him. Within a few seconds Harry had emerged with the largest of Lockhart's books in his hand. As he flipped it open to the index, he jumped as something fell out and to the ground.
Just a tad startled, Harry bent down and picked the object up. It looked like a diary, smaller and much more slender than its host volume, and bound all in black leather. Feeling the pangs of curiosity, he leafed through its pages, and was disappointed to find them blank. He turned back to the first page, and stared at the name embossed there in faded gold leaf: Tom Marvolo Riddle.
At last, with a shrug Harry turned back to his homework. It most likely wasn't anything important, and if it was...
Well, he'd figure that out later. Right now, that damned essay was calling.
(1) This passage comes directly from J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets.
A/N 2: And here you see where most of my energy has been going for the past month or so. First of all, as you may have noticed in the header, this is the result of a collaboration between me and a friend. Krystal (non-ff. net penname) came up with the idea while we were sitting in homeroom, we spent the next half-hour planning it out, and then I spent the next few weeks planning it out further and writing this chapter. Being a collaboration, and with much longer chapters than I normally write, don't expect me to update on it too often.
5 October 2004