Worth a Thousand Words 1
Disclaimer and Authors' Note: Harry Potter, the associated fictional universe, and all characters and items contained therein are intellectual property of J. K. Rowling. We are just playing and have no intention of claim or material profit. It should be noted that this story takes place in an alternate timeline diverging after the end of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets; preceding stories are "Who We Are" and "Trouble Brewing," which explain why Tom Riddle is running around Hogwarts, why he's friends with Ginny, and what happened to Voldemort.
Worth a Thousand Words
by Alan Sauer
and Persephone Kore
The Heir of Slytherin walked slowly toward the room in which a monster awaited him.
He really wished he thought it even remotely likely that Hagrid had brought any variety of snake in. Professor Snape could have sent them to Filch to be punished for spilling Laughter Potion on him -- the caretaker wasn't even permitted some of the older forms of corporal punishment. But no, it had been too much to hope that the professor wouldn't look past which of the two he liked best, so Tom was going to have even more practice with Magical Creatures.
Ginny nudged his elbow. "Could you try to look a little less doomed? I talked to him ahead of time; he hasn't picked anything that's likely to be lethal, and it'll be good practice."
"This is Hagrid," he muttered out of the corner of his mouth, trying to keep the proper attitude in mind. "'Not anything likely to be lethal' doesn't seem to mean the same thing in his language."
"Which is why I asked him about it ahead of time," she retorted. "But no, before you ask, I'm not telling you anything before we get there. You probably aren't even supposed to know you're taking care of a creature, but it's not as if it's that much of a surprise."
Tom rolled his eyes. They were almost there anyway, he could see Hagrid looming next to a door. He greeted them with a stern nod. "Ready for yer detentions, are yeh? Ginny, I thought I'd have yeh muck out the hippogriff stalls, they're gettin' a mite ripe. Thought I'd try Tom on Kiffy, she's bin feelin' a bit blue and could use the company."
Ginny wrinkled her nose but nodded at her own assignment, then laughed and turned to Tom. "Mine's fair enough, since we did make a mess, but I'm going to envy you yours."
Thoughts racing, Tom looked wary and finally craned his neck to look up at Hagrid. "...What's a Kiffy?"
"Kiffy's a she. That's 'er name," Hagrid responded. "Thought Ginny woulda told yer. She's a sphinx. Mute, poor thing, an' awful shy because of it, but Hermione got 'er started on them rebus puzzles, and that's perked 'er up some."
"I never thought to mention it, did I?" Ginny remarked thoughtfully. "She's nice, Tom, really."
"...Don't they, um, get a bit upset if you don't answer them right?"
"Oh, you're clever -- you won't have any trouble. She hasn't had any nasty ones when I was here."
"That's enough, now -- yeh'd better get started, Ginny. Off yeh go -- yeh know where the tools are, and unlike some yeh'll actually work with 'em. I'll get Tom started here."
"Right. Well, I could be scraping cauldron bottoms again, that's something." He looked up at Hagrid. "Where is she?"
Hagrid nodded down at him as Ginny vanished out the door. "That's th' first part of your assignment -- ye'll have ter find her and coax her out. Here's treats... here's the sand-patch she's been drawing in... and here's a brush for her coat. Mind the feathers."
"Ah." Tom took the treats and brush gingerly. "Hm."
"Well, I'll be going. Got the chickens ter take care of, and I'd best make sure Ginny won't have any trouble with the hippogriffs -- not likely, as she's got more sense than ter go being disrespectful to them, but it can't hurt. Give a shout if yeh need a hand; I should be where I can hear yeh."
"Good." The bushy eyebrows drew together as Hagrid's expression changed to a stern frown. "Now don't go scarin' her!" And with that, he left Tom alone in the gamekeeper's cottage with, presumably, an extremely well-hidden sphinx.
Scare her?! She probably thought he was a snack! Tom looked around warily, thinking hard. Well, sphinxes asked riddles quite a bit--he stifled a nervous chuckle; this one was going to be asking riddles of a Riddle--but maybe they didn't get to answer them very often. He thought for a moment and then addressed random parts of the room. "Um, Kiffy? My name's Tom. Hagrid said you could use some company. I thought maybe we could play riddles, or -- Hagrid says you like rebuses, here's one." He traced a few figures on the sand patch. "I've also got food if you're hungry."
He managed not to say "Please don't kill and eat me if I guess wrong."
Nothing pounced on him. A strange, puffy-looking creature with a long beak burbled from inside a large aquarium. There was no sound or motion from anywhere else in the room. It might have been a little bit reassuring to have some idea where to look....
He sat down on the floor, peered into the bag of sphinx treats, and hastily shut it again. Spiced dried mouse, it looked like. He looked around the room again. "Um, funny coincidence, my last name's Riddle. I guess Hagrid thought we'd have something in common. Ha ha." He paused. "He said you were feeling kind of down... s'pose you're kind of unusual for sphinxes. That's me as well; I'm missing fifty years of history. Even the drapes in the dorm are a slightly different color than I remember."
He thought he heard a noise that time. Unfortunately he wasn't quite sure where it had come from... but it might have been the sound claws might make on the floor. That might be bad. Lions' claws were retractable; if the sphinx had hers out.... Tom found himself staring at the tablecloth. Why was there a floor-length tablecloth in the gamekeeper's cottage? Especially with Hagrid's taste in pets, it seemed as if it would be rapidly destroyed.
He lifted up one corner very slowly and carefully peeked underneath. "Um, hello?"
Despite the human face, a sphinx's eyes reflected light like a cat's. Tom was faced with two green-gold glowing spots that suddenly blinked and retreated toward the other end of the table with a hiss. Apparently Kiffy could still make some noise, though he certainly hadn't been expecting that one.
"Sorry. Um. I didn't mean to startle you. I used to make forts like this when I was little. They're really good next to sunny windows, the light casts all sorts of great shadows all over the inside."
He found himself feeling oddly better at the evidence that Kiffy was at least as scared of him as he was of her. It seemed to even things up.
The eyes blinked, but the sphinx didn't move otherwise. As his own eyes began adjusting to the dimness under the table, Tom could make out the outline of a lion's body, interrupted by a less distinct ruffle that probably meant wings. She was halfway curled up, but probably almost as long as the couch....
He thought her head tilted.
"Um, I could show you? I know a spell for light, I could cast it on something outside. Or I could light a fire in the fireplace, that'd be just as good."
Apparently Kiffy had decided that he was relatively unthreatening, as she appeared to be stretching out and relaxing a bit, though she kept her head up and her eyes open. Wings shifted on her back.
She really was almost as long as the couch.
"Are you hungry? Hagrid gave me some--" He cautiously put the bag down at arm's length and opened it. "They're spicy mice, I think."
There was a barely-audible sniff and no indication whatsoever that Kiffy was about to move. She was still watching him as if he might at any moment do something peculiar. As Tom had no idea what a sphinx might find odd or threatening, he wasn't at all sure he wouldn't.
He sat and watched her watch him for a moment. Maybe he was talking too much -- he might be hurting her feelings since she couldn't.
The silence stretched. And stretched. And... stretched. It could have been a Weasley product.
Tom was starting to wonder if he would have to go to her.
He inched forward carefully. "I also have a brush, if you like. You have nice hair. And fur. And feathers, actually. I've never seen a sphinx before; I think I'm glad you're my first one."
The wings moved again, this time with an audible rustle. He hoped this was a good sign. He really hoped it was a good sign when instead of backing away again, Kiffy rose to a very low crouch beneath the table and stretched her forelegs out. This was all well and good, but as her paws flexed the claws peeked out. They looked lethal... and despite the human face, when she yawned, her teeth were definitely a carnivore's.
He waited to see what she would do. "I don't think I mentioned, but Ginny Weasley is a friend of mine, she said she sometimes comes and does riddles with you. She'd be here now only we're doing detention, so she has to clean up after the hippogriffs."
Kiffy perked up slightly, then slunk forward until they were nose to nose. Tom started to back out from under the table, but the sphinx lifted a paw to his shoulder.
"Um," he said nervously. He was going to have to find a different noise; that one was getting used up. Possibly 'Er' would work better next time.
At least her claws were in. She studied him carefully for a moment, then patted him slightly on the shoulder and put her paw on his knee instead.
He had the oddest feeling she was trying to reassure him. He smiled. "If we were having a race to see which one of us could stay nervous longest, I think I won. What would you like to do now?"
It was hard to tell, considering the anatomy, but that was almost definitely a shrug. Kiffy removed her paw and regarded him without blinking.
"Well, I've got the snacks if you're hungry, and I've got the brush if you'd like to be groomed, and there's the sand table if you'd prefer to do rebuses, but I don't really know what sphinxes do in their spare time, so I thought I'd let you pick."
Kiffy looked thoughtful, then crawled out from under the table (rather to Tom's relief) and went over to inspect the sand patch. She gave him an odd look upon finding the rebus he'd already sketched for her.
"I thought you might like to answer some instead of just asking all the time. You don't have to if you don't want to. I left a space for you to draw the answer though, see?"
It wasn't exceptionally complex, as rebuses went; Tom had sketched a tree and a bull's head, then a key, and after a moment's contemplation Kiffy touched one claw to the sand and drew out a treble clef.
"Right!" He grinned. "Your turn, then. And I've not done this sort of thing much, remember."
The first of Kiffy's symbols was a pair of diverging wavy lines, with little ripples in between. The second was distinctly a horse.
Tom thought. "Well, that first one looks like water... hm, in a line, a river? River... horse." He paused. Sphinxes came from Egypt. "Hippopotamus?"
Kiffy nodded, smiled, then swept a paw over the sand.
Tom sat back on his heels, considering, then drew a little hill with palm trees and water surrounding it, wrote "-IS, D" next to it, then a picture of a top with little arrows indicating it was spinning. "Um, sorry, I forgot to ask, can you read English? Because I'll come up with another one if you can't."
The sphinx studied this picture gravely, then drew an enclosed lamp... and hesitated, then painstakingly wrote out "lantern" in the sand.
"Right again. Sorry." He considered. "Do you read a lot? Because I could probably bring you books from the library sometimes, if you told me what kind you wanted."
The sphinx smiled thoughtfully at the sand, then began carefully drawing letters. A rhyming riddle took shape, one line at a time -- Tom committed each piece anxiously to memory before it was erased to get more space.
First is a flower whose beauty is certain,
Off with the false wizard hid by a curtain.
Next is the word that denotes state of being,
Last a vampiric insect you'll be seeing.
Strung all together in one line and mind,
They describe one whose vanity has made him blind.
Oh, wonderful. He'd just reminded her she could write.
Tom thought for a moment. This was tricky. It didn't seem to add up. Which flower, and which insect? And curtains? That sounded like a reference to something... well, Filch was sort of a false wizard, being a Squib, and he hid behind almost anything... but that didn't make any sense either.
He gulped. "I, um...." He ran through all the kinds of flowers he knew in his mind, but couldn't take either "Argus" or "Filch" away from any of them. "I don't know. I'm sorry," he said faintly. He closed his eyes, hoping it would be quick. Maybe this would teach Snape not to hand out detentions so quickly.
Kiffy, who had been waiting patiently up to this point, reached a paw across his lap to snag the bag of spice mice with one claw. Tom's eyes opened as she dragged it back across his legs. The sphinx gave him a look of deep disappointment and another shrug, then pawed at the bag. It obviously hadn't been designed for someone without hands.
"Oh. You're, um, not going to eat me?" He hastily held the bag open for her before she decided on easier food. "Sorry, I just... how do you take Argus Filch away from a flower, anyway?"
Kiffy gave him another reproachful look, heaved a sigh, and smoothed the sand clear. Then she wrote:
"Oz? What's Oz? Is that the wizard?"
An imaginary one.
And a humbug.
She smiled then, and in what had to rank among the more peculiar experiences of his life, lifted her head to kiss him on the cheek.
"Oh. I've never heard of him, that book must've come out after I was... anyway, after 1945. Or been American, I didn't get to read very many American books." He blinked at the kiss, then smiled slowly. He'd definitely had worse detentions, he supposed.
You read everything in England?
"Oh. Well, no." He chuckled. "I'd like to, though. No, it's just, I grew up in an orphanage, and there wasn't enough money to get a lot of books, and I didn't have very much pocket money of my own. I'll probably never catch up now." His tone nevertheless suggested that he'd like to try, and he dared a wink at Kiffy.
Well, I will not prevent you. You do not kiss meals.
Then she smiled again -- this time a smirk -- and began again:
One tells you that there is limited light;
Two is an herb served with lamb to delight
Three is a bull, but without you and me,
All make up a creature you don't want to see.
Tom thought. "Okay, the second is mint--we had lamb in mint sauce at Christmas my first year, it was really good. The third one . . .hm, bull, but with you and me so I can take it away later . . . oh, of course, Taurus. Take away us, leaving taur. Mint, taur . . . " He shuddered. "You're right, I certainly don't want to meet any of those. I read about them in the back of my Defense Against the Dark Arts book. They sound horrible."
Foul creatures. They walk and smell already rotted.
I suppose it would be more reassuring to say that I don't kiss meals.
Tom laughed. "I hope you won't be offended, but your sense of humor reminds me of a snake I used to talk to in the park. Funny, but disturbing. Carnivore smiles, you know?"
Snakes are all right. They never seem to care if I can answer them or not.
"Yes, I am." He blinked. "Can you understand them too, then?"
I learned to, somewhat, from ones who climbed onto me for heat before I lived with humans. I don't know if they ever knew. I can understand a little, but not speak.
"I suppose being handy with languages is helpful when you're a sphinx. If you learned, though, I wonder if someone else might?" He stared off into the distance for a moment. "Only I'm not sure how to teach it, as I never really learned, myself. Hmm." He blinked. "Sorry, my mind tends to wander occasionally."
Hiss at someone a lot. Or ask them to hold still and let a serpent lick their ears clean; there's a legend that will work, I think, but I don't know of any who've tried it.
"Asclepius, wasn't that? And that's why there are snakes on the caduceus? There are a lot of Muggle myths that turn out to be half-remembered wizard things, so that might actually work." He snickered, picturing asking Ginny to hold still so he could stick a snake in her ear. "Don't know who I'd get to volunteer, though."
The sphinx shrugged, ate a spice mouse, and began drawing in the sand again. By the time Hagrid came back, there had been a brief interlude demonstrating the fun of shadows under a table in a brightly-lit room, and the two were back at the sand-patch with Tom leaning on Kiffy's side and a wing over his back.
"Well, looks like the two of yeh ended up gettin' along just fine."
"Oh, hello, Hagrid," Tom said. "Is detention over already?" He looked up, abruptly no longer relaxed. "Yeah, Kiffy's a lot of fun. She knows some very tricky riddles -- although I'm going to have to ask Hermione why she didn't think to see if Kiffy knew how to write."
"Write?" Hagrid looked over the sand-patch in surprise. "Well, that's bright, that is. I'm surprised she didn' start sooner, as much as she's been drawing." He looked sternly down at Tom. "If yeh've had that much fun, though, maybe I'd better keep yeh in for some other chore...."
"I thought she was going to eat me for a while at the start, honest," Tom said hurriedly. "I got one of the first riddles wrong."
"Oh, Kiffy's glad enough of the company she won' go making kills over a wrong answer," Hagrid told him coolly. "Nothin' ter worry over. Hasn' eaten me yet, has she?"
Which suggested she could.... There were few things more disturbing than Hagrid's acknowledging, even obliquely, that one of his "interesting creatures" was dangerous. Though apparently he'd warned the third-years about the hippogriffs.
"Well, it doesn't look that way." Ginny peered through the door from where she'd stopped to pick dirty straw off her robes.
Tom managed not to chuckle at her--apparently she hadn't been having the best detention of her entire Hogwarts career. He supposed Hagrid would probably have him cleaning stalls next time, but possibly he could stop by and visit Kiffy on their next Care of Magical Creatures tutorial.
"Stop smirking." After casting a spell to clean her shoes off, Ginny came into the house and knelt on the other side of the sphinx. She still had some of the straw in her hair. "I told you you'd like her."
Tom picked a stray bit of straw off the top of her head. "Somehow you keep being right. I thought I was supposed to be the genius." He smiled at Kiffy. "It's about time for us to have dinner, so we'd better go."
"You ought to come back and visit her," Ginny told him. "I think she likes you, too."
Tom looked nervously up at Hagrid. "Well, I'll try to do that -- before the next time I get in trouble -- if that's all right...."
"Fine with me," the gamekeeper said gruffly. "Not likely yeh'd get this next time anyway -- thought it'd be good fer yeh and useful, but detention's not meant ter be fun."
"And it wasn't," Ginny said firmly, "especially since I had to miss all Ron's chess matches this afternoon! I wonder if the tournament is over, or if they'll have to go back after dinner? I don't know how quickly they'll have played.... Goodbye, Hagrid, I'll see you in class next week."
Tom blinked, told the sphinx goodbye as well, and followed Ginny out the door with alacrity. "Your brother's in a chess tournament? I didn't even know there was one."
Ginny stared at him as though he'd been the victim of a particularly interesting hex. "You didn't -- it's been all in the papers! I know you weren't... around... over the summer, but they still had notices in the Prophet until registration was over last month...."
"I've had Quidditch. And, um, Potions. And most of what I get from the Prophet is Malfoy's leavings, and they've been editorialized after publication. How's Ron likely to do? I mean, I know I don't know him very well, but I wasn't even aware he played."
"Hmm. There's usually an extra copy or two around the Gryffindor common room after people are through with them." Ginny sped up, eyes alight. "Ron's very good. He beat Professor McGonagall's chess-puzzle year before last, and I haven't seen him lose in ages. I'm surprised I didn't mention the tournament to you, at least this past week -- Ron wouldn't; he's been nervous."
"I'd wondered what you were so distracted about. Well, you'll see him at dinner -- tell him good luck from me, unless that'd make him more nervous, and let me know how he did after?"
"I will, if he isn't finished yet. They could already be finished, if everyone played quickly -- but that's not very likely, so I hope he's still playing. That would mean he's won so far, and that I might be able to get permission to go watch this evening." She considered. "I suppose that's not likely though.... I had asked Professor McGonagall if I might be able to, but even if she'd make an exception and let me off the grounds, I'd need a letter -- and I haven't asked yet, but Mum probably wouldn't give me one after I had detention even if there were time."
"Oh, it's not at the school?" Tom thought. "That must mean it's a regional tournament, not just a Hogwarts one. Ron must be good."
"It's in Hogsmeade. I don't think you could have helped noticing if they'd been planning for it here! Dessert would probably have been shaped like chess pieces all week."
Tom laughed. "True enough. And speaking of dessert, if you don't want to go to dinner smelling like hippogriff stalls, we'd better run or that'll be all that's left."
Ginny made a face at him but broke into a run. "Race you there."
Ginny scurried into the cafeteria after a hasty but vastly beneficial shower and found the Gryffindor table in a state of uproar. Ron pushed out of the center of a celebratory knot and snatched her off her feet. "Ginny! Ginny, I won!"
"It's over already?" she gasped. "That was fast."
"I know! I still can't believe it. It was just--I played really well, and the chess pieces--they were tournament regulation standard, really amazing, and--you won't believe it, I got my picture in the Prophet! It's going in tomorrow's edition!"
Ginny squealed and hugged his neck. "Ron, that's wonderful! Congratulations!" She laughed. "Tom asked me to tell you good luck for him, but I guess I don't need to."
Ron grinned. "Not with half of Hogwarts telling me good luck this morning, no--but tell him thanks anyway. I wish you could've been there--Snape probably picked today for your detention on purpose."
Ginny grimaced. "Well, I wish I could have watched too, but I should have thought about it before we picked that potion -- though you're right, I think he was going to send us to Filch that night and changed it. It was the perfect opportunity, though."
"I've seen the pictures." Ron grinned. "Now come on, there's plenty to eat and there's a celebration in Gryffindor Tower after. I think Fred and George smuggled in some butterbeer somehow."
"Uh-oh." She hugged him hard, and he set her back on her feet so she could sit down at the table. Dinner was very loud that night.
LC: Don't worry -- that story's over, but there's more to the series! (Of course, we're delighted you don't want it to be over.) Thanks! And yes, I can imagine that might make thinking of anyone else as Tom difficult... I kind of know the feeling about characters named the same as my brother. :) -- PK
To LC: Well, we _did_ finish that story, but luckily it's a serial, so more stories are forthcoming. Glad you enjoyed it and good luck with your brother. :) --Alan
*Selena*: Glad you like it! And here is more. ;) Um... no hints, sorry.
To Selena: We'll be addressing the Death Eaters, or at least one of them, in later stories. I wouldn't hold your breath on the romantic prospects, though. Glad you liked it and I hope you keep reading.