As Tom Riddle brags about how he can make animals do what he wants without training them, a sharp, unpleasant twist unfolds in Albus’s gut.
Wandless magic under such control from such an early age? It would be impressive—but compulsion on animals is usually the forerunner for compulsion on humans. The mere thought of what this boy could become when he’s older makes Albus want to leave right away.
Or teach him a lesson.
But the memory of the boy’s words when he first entered the room returns to him. Tom thought he was from an asylum. He’s been threatened with that, then. Threats of being caged up probably would drive the boy to practice as intense a control as he could get over his magic and those weaker than himself.
How can he leave the boy alone to suffer on a Dark path? To damage others? To damage himself?
Albus spins the conversation in an entirely new direction. “You are an extraordinary wizard for your age,” he says thoughtfully. That makes Tom’s chest puff out even more. Albus pretends not to notice. “But from your dwelling in a Muggle orphanage, I would say that you have no family left?”
Tom’s face tightens even as a furious spark comes to life in his dark eyes. “I do not.”
“Then you will need a magical mentor to train your powers,” Albus says. The tradition he invokes is an old one, but it is one that’s still sometimes practiced, so he’s not lying to the boy. “Many of the powerful young wizards who came to our school have mentors among their relatives. The Muggleborns—”
“Who are they?”
“Wizards born from two Muggles.” Like you, Albus almost says, but from the description Tom gave of training snakes, he is no longer sure of that. “They don’t have magical mentors, but on the other hand, they aren’t often of the power level to require one.” The boy puffs out again. Albus is learning how to handle him: praise him by telling him the absolute truth. “I have no close pupils currently. I would be honored to serve as your mentor.”
“Why would you? What would you want in return?”
“My dear boy, I’m an educator. Training a strong young mind and will is enough reward for me.”
And preventing the rise of another Dark Lord. I contributed to Gellert’s rise; I will do what I can to prevent another.
But that is a truth the boy need not learn for a long time, and right now he looks too happy to be suspicious. “What do we have to do to make you my magical mentor?”
“There are some documents that we’ll need to sign, and a few tests that can be performed at the Ministry to determine your magical strength.” Albus is already sure Tom will pass them all. He holds out his hand. “If you’d like to come with me now, we can get the preliminary exams set up.”
The boy may not trust him completely, but he takes Albus’s hand, and that is what matters.
Tom steps back from the circle of white stones set into a ring of silver, and blinks. The shower of gold and bronze sparks from the practice wand they gave him zips around the air inside the circle, taking a long time to disappear.
“Oh, very exciting, Professor Dumbledore! I haven’t seen an eleven-year-old wizard this strong in a long time! You’re very right that he needs someone strong to train him…”
The Ministry examiner, a tall witch in teal-blue robes, is clapping her hands and talking to Professor Dumbledore so rapidly that Tom can’t follow everything she says. He watches her standing with Dumbledore—they’re the only people in this high, wide room—and nods thoughtfully.
He knows well enough that Dumbledore isn’t telling him everything. Oh, the magical world is undoubtedly real and he isn’t going to an asylum, but he knows Dumbledore doesn’t have only his good at heart. No one ever does. Even if someone did, that would make them weak, unworthy of Tom’s time and attention.
And this man is not weak. The examiner bowed to them the minute she saw them, her eyes wide with awe. People stopped in the Atrium to watch them go by, and crowded into the lift with them and craned their necks. Tom listened carefully, but he didn’t hear anyone say anything specific about things Dumbledore’s done, not even parents with children.
In fact, some people seemed to be looking at the air around Dumbledore, instead of directly at him. As if they could see his aura of power, and that’s what they’re responding to.
Tom nods. Someday, he will be like that, too, not known for his deeds but for his strength.
“He needs a wand right away,” the examiner is telling Dumbledore when Tom bothers to pay attention again. “To channel that much power and make sure he doesn’t spill it onto others and accidentally influence them…oh, yes, a wand is necessary.”
She looks at Tom again, and Tom offers the small smile that sometimes calms Mrs. Cole down. There’s the first beginnings of awe, in at least one person’s eyes. He will remember what it looks like.
“Thank you, madam,” Tom says, and turns around to see Dumbledore studying him.
He doesn’t find out why until they come to the wand shop, which is dusty and ancient enough that Tom doesn’t know whether he should respect the tall man who bustles out, wringing his hands, or not.
“You have to have a wand,” Dumbledore explains, pushing up his own glasses and pinning Tom with a keen glance. “But you can’t do magic outside school until you’re fully of age.”
Tom catches his breath, vague memories of Muggle history returning to him. Sometimes they don’t consider someone fit to inherit until he’s twenty-one. Or eighteen, at youngest. “What’s the age limit?”
Not ideal, but Tom will make do. Dumbledore has already told him that Tom will attend Hogwarts for seven years. That means he will turn seventeen while he’s still a student, and that means he’ll be able to use magic to defend himself against at least some of the Muggles in the orphanage if he needs to.
“Young Mr. Riddle.” Ollivander’s voice is almost hypnotic. He studies Tom, his eyes darting for some reason to Tom’s forehead for a second, before he nods and begins fishing out the wand boxes. “It may take some time to match you. Try to find the right one. Pick up this one and give it a wave—”
But the beech wand isn’t right, and neither is the cedar, and neither is the ebony or the ash or the willow. There’s a holly one that feels almost right, at least it shoots off sparks, but Ollivander takes it away too rapidly for Tom to really consider. Ollivander finally gives him a curious glance that makes Tom want to shrink, as he worries he’s unmatchable.
He doesn’t shrink for anyone or anything, though. He lifts his head and coolly surveys the wandmaker back.
“Yes, yes, I think this might work,” Ollivander says to himself, bobbing his head a little as if he’s daft. Then he extends the wand to Tom, and Tom reaches out and grasps it…
And the power that floods him when he feels his hand fit into the groove! He gasps and aims it upwards, and a ghostly golden bird soars out of the wandtip and circles up near the ceiling, its wings beating and sending down small showers of sparks. Tom stares up at it, then at Ollivander.
“Have you ever seen anything like that, sir?” he demands, challenging him to say he has, that someone out there is at least as impressive as Tom.
Instead, Ollivander looks a little shaken. “No,” he says. “And I do wonder…this wand is yew and phoenix feather, Mr. Riddle. One of my rarer combinations. It is, perhaps, fitting that your magical mentor is the man who owns the phoenix that gave his tail feather for your wand.”
Tom pivots on one heel to stare at Dumbledore. Dumbledore gives him a small head-bob and a smile. “Fawkes. You’ll meet him when we go to Hogwarts, Tom.”
Tom says nothing, but his grip tightens on his wand. He plans to keep a tight hold on Dumbledore, too. Whatever the professor’s motives may have been for agreeing to become Tom’s mentor, this is something outside them both that says they are allies. Dumbledore couldn’t have known which wand Tom would be compatible with.
He keeps a close eye on Dumbledore as they enter the bookshop, too. Whenever Dumbledore pauses in front of a shelf and scans it, Tom looks, too, and adds what looks interesting to his overflowing basket. Not only schoolbooks. They don’t need to be. Dumbledore is paying for everything.
And Tom isn’t about to not take advantage of that generosity when it comes to books. Whatever Dumbledore’s motives may ultimately be.
Albus smiles and claps for the slender, dark-haired boy who takes the Sorting Hat off his head and stalks towards Slytherin House’s table. In truth, he isn’t the least bit surprised. The boy was already showing strong tendencies on the day that Albus went to see him in the orphanage.
“Something’s changed, Albus,” Armando says from the seat beside him, his voice quivering a little. “You don’t usually clap for the Slytherin Sortings.”
“Oh, that’s Tom Riddle, the boy I told you about,” Albus says idly, leaning back and watching Riddle’s welcome by his new Housemates. It’s not warm. A few stare at him and look away; a few stare and sneer. Most of them seem content to ignore him altogether. Of course, that might change when they learn who Tom’s magical mentor is, but Albus wouldn’t count on it. There are some misguided souls who will only ever see blood purity, no matter how Tom excels.
On the other hand, Tom’s head is already tilting back and his eyes narrowing as he studies them. That heartens Albus. It means the boy is finding in-roads and studying for handles to grasp and manipulate. And he will have to find them. He will make a difference in ways that don’t depend on blood.
Albus has already directed Tom, subtly, to a few books that explain the origins of pure-bloods’ obsession with their own history and the times they’ve lost out by ignoring talented Muggleborns. The boy is impatient with foolishness and stupidity of all sorts. Albus is not really worried about him following the path of the blood purists, because that would mean repeating their mistakes.
“You expected he would Sort Slytherin?”
“I thought there was a high chance of it.”
Armando leans a hand on Albus’s arm. Albus starts and looks at him. Armando is only ten years older than Albus, but acts much more decrepit, so it’s always a shock to see how keen he can be when he wants to.
“I think it’s remarkable,” Armando breathes, “that you might be getting over your distrust and dislike of Slytherins.”
Albus blinks, then nods thoughtfully. He doesn’t want to acknowledge it, really, but he knows he takes more points away from Slytherin House than most professors, and assigns the members more detentions. Of course, part of that is that they do cheat more often than the other Houses and have more students who think they don’t need to do their homework because of who their great-great-grandparents were.
With his protégé in that House, and probably set to do well if Albus can read the indications at all—plus shut out of the network of passed-around answers and forged signatures thanks to his blood status—he’ll have to cut back on that.
“Thanks, Armando,” he says. “Yes. It’s another chance.”
Armando nods and humphs and leans back in his chair. “I’m sure we can all expect great things of the boy, Albus. Great things.”
Tom’s mentor looks up. They’ve spent tonight mostly in his office, with Dumbledore showing Tom patterns in history—the goblin rebellions, the rise of Dark Lords, the persecutions of their kind by Muggles—that result from people not paying enough attention. “Yes, Tom?”
Tom opens his mouth, then wrinkles his nose as one of the many small clocks on the walls crows. Really, Dumbledore’s office is stuffed to the gills with whirling silver monstrosities and paperweights Transfigured from eggs and tiny rocking chairs that move by themselves. The only thing Tom finds the least bit impressive or grand is the phoenix grooming himself on the perch by Dumbledore’s desk.
But he’s learning to sense auras now, and he can feel the importance of the soft golden shadow continually burning around Dumbledore. That it could deepen in color to the hue of fire he has no doubt.
“Yes, Tom?” Dumbledore repeats a minute later, with a fond look at the clock and the mechanical rooster springing from the side.
“Why do things like this happen?” Tom waves his hand at the book in front of them, which is all about a Muggleborn who invented a cure for dragonpox and then destroyed it in frustration when no pure-bloods would allow him to claim credit for it or sell him ingredients to produce it. The book is based on the Muggleborn’s research journals. “I mean, dragonpox still doesn’t have a cure, does it?”
“That’s right, Tom. Some of our best Healers have spent years trying to recreate Sorenson’s formula. They’ve never succeeded.”
“But why did the pure-bloods do that?” Tom hisses the answer, and stands up to pace around Dumbledore’s office which, given his knickknacks, is a less than satisfying exercise. After a moment, he gives up and flings himself back into his chair. “Why do they—they shut me out of everything, they won’t study with me or listen to me when I try to tell him about wandless magic or let me sit with them at Quidditch games. Why are they so stupid?”
Dumbledore sighs and removes his glasses, spending a moment clearing his eyes with a spotted handkerchief. Then he says, “Because many of our people have little trust in what they do not understand, my boy. And they think that only things that have been around for a long time are worth trusting. Look at how ancient many of our spells are, how rarely new ones are invented. Unfortunate people like the majority of your Housemates feel the same way about families. They don’t know the reputation of Muggleborns’ families, they don’t understand where they came from or what they believed. So they turn their backs and bury their heads in the sand.”
“What about you, sir?” Tom has been at Hogwarts for a month, and feels like he knows the damn blood status of every other student in Slytherin, but no one seems to much discuss the professors’. In fact, when he brought up Dumbledore to one of the Lestranges, she looked incredibly uncomfortable and changed the subject.
“Me?” Dumbledore chuckles. “From some people, I get a pass because my father was a pure-blood, and it’s his name I bear.”
“From some people? And your mother?”
“My mother was Muggleborn,” Dumbledore says, with a faint smile that’s touched with old pain. “And my father went to prison for attacking three Muggles.” He sighs and looks out the window of the office, a conjured one that shows a small cottage nestled in a dense forest. “It leaves various people not knowing what to do with me.”
Tom narrows his eyes. “Do they respect you for it? Or is this considered a career beyond what a half-blood can usually achieve?”
“They don’t know what to do with me,” Dumbledore says again. “They hear my pure-blood surname, and then they remember who my father married, and flail in confusion. They think of my father as a Muggle-lover, and then they hear about his crime.”
“Why did he do it?”
“Crimes have many motivations, my boy. But I think what you’re asking is why don’t they respect you.”
“I want—I wish I knew who my parents were, sir.” Tom glances away, ashamed to have admitted that kind of weakness in front of Dumbledore.
The man gently touches his arm. Dumbledore smiles at him, and it’s the kind of smile that he usually reserves for the Gryffindors in class. Not that he’s unfair to Tom or denies him the points he rightfully earns from knowing all the answers, but it’s obvious what House Dumbledore was in.
“It’s a natural desire for any orphan to wish to know who his parents are, where he comes from. But wish it for that, Tom. Not because you think it would get you more recognition from your classmates obsessed with blood purity. I assure you, it would not. They would find some other reason or way to despise you.”
Tom finally nods. Yes, he can see that. There are pure-bloods in Slytherin who are part of that network of answers and favors and patronage and yet writhe under the scorn of their classmates every day, for something their father did or their mother did or because an ancestor was a half-blood. No, he wouldn’t want to be part of the network if it means being treated that way.
“Then what matters, sir, is power?”
“And how you use that power.” Dumbledore nods to the book Tom has placed aside. “Sorenson’s end was tragic, but imagine. Would you rather invent a cure for dragonpox? Or a new way to kill people in large numbers?”
Tom slowly sits down as he thinks about that. He would be feared if he invented the last one. But someone would try to take it away from him, too. Or a pure-blood would try to claim credit.
He opens the book and starts to read again, conscious of Dumbledore’s approving smile.
“I—this is Godric’s Hollow?”
Albus nods as he watches Tom turn in a slow circle. He has decided that he can’t leave Tom alone in the orphanage during the Christmas holidays. The boy would be tempted to use his power to make life easier for himself, and both expulsion from Hogwarts and the temptation itself would be dangerous for the Muggles around him.
And for him. Albus has found himself—well, far fonder of Tom Riddle than he ever expected to be of any boy who has the potential to become a Dark Lord.
Any other boy.
To turn his mind from the unfortunate subject of Gellert, Albus says, “It is. But my house isn’t in sight yet. Do come.” He walks briskly down the path, waiting until Tom falls in behind him to add, “It’s not a grand manor, like some of the pure-bloods have. But it’s home.”
Tom’s mouth pulls to the side in that way that means he’s reserving judgment until he sees it. Albus chuckles and then draws his wand, waving it casually so that the wards fall just when Tom happens to be looking in the house’s direction.
Tom jerks to a stop as the cottage appears from nowhere, nestled in a thick stand of trees off the main road through the village. “This is the house that you can see through your office window,” he breathes.
“Yes. With some poetic license for the forest.” Albus steps up to the cottage and opens the door. Even at this season, when no natural flowers bloom, the illusory white roses he has growing around the door endure, and a spell makes them rattle in cheerful welcome. “Do come in.”
Once they’re in the house, Tom can’t seem to stop looking at everything: the shelves crowded with books, the thick stone walls, the fireplace that stretches half the length of one wall. Albus sets to making hot chocolate, certain the boy will discover the main treasure of the house sooner rather than later.
“Sir? What is this? A potions lab?” Tom opens the door and then stands just inside it, staring around. “But I’ve never seen half this equipment before—why do you have a bathtub of pure gold, sir?”
Albus chuckles again. Even in moments of the most heightened excitement, Tom never forgets his manners.
“That’s for an experiment,” he calls over his shoulder as the hot chocolate begins to mumble and hiss to itself. Albus reaches into an alcove on the wall that contains bread and cheese under a preservation charm, and checks them for freshness with another charm. Yes, they’ll do. And he thinks that Tom will probably like the bread made with raisins and the soft, nutty goat cheese. Hogwarts’s house-elves are wonderful, but they don’t tend to make such varied fare. “I’m an alchemist. You should see it in the summer. We have tubs of dragon’s blood boiling away. It’s all very exciting.”
For some reason, there’s only silence. Albus has put the chocolate and the bread and the cheese on the table before a noise makes him turn around. Tom is standing there, staring at him, clutching the doorframe of the lab in one hand.
“And will I?” he asks.
“Will you what?” Albus asks, honestly not understanding.
“Will I see the dragon’s blood boiling in the summer?” Tom takes a long step forwards. “Or is this only a ’take pity on the orphan’ holiday and you’ll return me to the orphanage when June comes?”
Albus studies Tom, absently casting a spell that will keep the hot chocolate warm. “I planned to have you here. If you like it. You may, of course, go somewhere else if you don’t.” Albus thinks it would be best if the boy was here, but he can hardly tell him the potential for Dark Lordship he senses in him, and he cannot confine Tom.
He must have free choice, or nothing that follows matters.
Tom comes up to the table and stares blankly at the food and drink for a minute. Then he looks up. Albus does not know how to name the expression on his face, but for some reason, the look in Tom’s eyes reminds him of Ariana. He swallows.
“I’d like to stay.” Tom says it almost inaudibly, and to the wall instead of him.
“Splendid!” Albus pulls a chair out. “Now, sit down and taste this cheese. It was rather a specialty of my mother’s, but I never know if I can make it like she did…”
Tom opens his eyes early, and blinks. His bedroom—
(The words make something in his chest quake, but he won’t listen to it, can’t listen to it right now).
—is on the cottage’s first floor, but he knows that it was darker when he went to sleep last night. He stands up and creeps on quiet feet, practiced from both the orphanage and Slytherin, to the edge of the staircase to look down.
There’s a golden light coming from the ground floor. Tom frowns. What is it? Some attempt to get rid of him?
He throws a fur-lined blanket from the bed over his own shoulders and travels down towards the warm light. The pyjamas Dumbledore Transfigured for him last night from an old blanket are thin and have golden Snitches flying around on them. Tom would die of mortification if the old man has a visitor and one of them saw that.
But when he comes downstairs, he finds Dumbledore stepping back from a huge pine tree that grows through the floor and up towards the ceiling. Tom stares up and can’t find the end of it. He supposes Dumbledore must have enchanted the cottage with wizardspace.
He knows that, with one part of himself. The other part can’t catch its breath.
“Ah, Tom!” Dumbledore says cheerfully. He waves his wand at the globes of golden light that he’s hung all over the tree’s branches. Well, just the outer ones, Tom realizes after a moment. Red, silver, green, blue, bronze, yellow, and black globes hang from inner branches near the top and bottom, and so do capering ornaments shaped like slithering snakes, crouched badgers, lions rampant, and eagles in flight. “You’re just in time to help me celebrate. My apologies for not having this up last night, m’boy. My final marking took me longer than I thought it would.”
Tom swallows several times. Then, he doesn’t know why, he looks under the tree.
There are several presents with his name on them. Well, not just on them. Floating in flaming letters over the top of the presents, and dancing on the paper, and hovering in globes whose insides rotate and say TOM in sparkles whenever they pass by his vantage point.
“Come and have breakfast, and then we’ll open the gifts. Unless you prefer to open the gifts first? I understand if you do.”
The majority of the packages look flat. Either books or robes, Tom thinks, and his mouth is very dry. He licks his lips.
But he is not a child. This is not his first Christmas.
Ignoring the fact that he’s never had a tree and presents for himself before, Tom coolly inclines his head and takes a step off the stairs. “Let’s have breakfast first, sir. And then we can open them.” His eyes go back to the gifts because he can’t help himself.
Dumbledore smiles and waves his wand again, and a tray floats in from the kitchen with a steaming mug of chocolate on it, and toast, and butter, and more of the cheese that Tom so liked last night. “We can eat and watch them at the same time,” he says. And with another flick, a chair is a table, and Tom sits at the table and eats and, no, he doesn’t look away from the presents.
This was the right choice.
Albus feels deep delight heat the center of his chest as he watches Tom. At the moment, the boy’s perfect disguise has slipped, and his eyes are sharp with hunger. He doesn’t look at Albus. He never stops coveting those things.
Those are some of the signs that Albus saw as warnings of Darkness in the orphanage. The interest in objects rather than people in particular.
But not looking at Albus also bespeaks a certain level of trust in him. And the best way to keep Tom from taking others’ things is to give him possessions of his own.
Albus also notices the way the boy’s eyes stray to the tree on occasion, and in particular the snakes and the silver and green globes of light.
I certainly have made a good decision, Albus thinks, and sips more chocolate to hide his smile. And Slytherins are far from as bad as I thought them.
Chapter 2: Chapter Two
For now, this is the end of the story. I may make it longer later.
Tom looks up with a bare flick of his eyebrows. “Mulciber. What do you need?” This particular pure-blood boy, a few years older than Tom, has never been part of the crowd that particularly sneers at his name, but neither has he been friendly. He sits down on the couch next to Tom as if he has, though.
“It’s Transfiguration,” Mulciber says. “I can never understand it, but you do it—” He pauses suddenly. “Or do you just get good marks on your essays since you’re Dumbledore’s pet?”
Tom looks at him steadily for a long, long moment. He lets the words hang in the air, and watches as Mulciber flushes and mutters something. The mutter doesn’t have enough of an apologetic sound for Tom, though, so he only smiles and says, “Oh, I wouldn’t want you to sully yourself with being close to Professor Dumbledore’s pet.” He picks up his homework and turns to go upstairs. The spells he’s studied guarantee that the zone around his bed remains free of pranks, curses, and jinxes.
“No! Riddle, wait. I mean—I have no idea how to write this essay. Help me, please?”
There aren’t many Slytherins in the common room, but there are enough that Tom can feel the eyes. He glances over his shoulder. “What will you give me in return if I do?”
Mulciber lets his eyes dart around, also gauging the audience, before he looks back at Tom. “What do you want?”
“Information,” Tom says. He’s heard Mulciber has a relative who works in the Department for the Regulation and Control of Magical Creatures; he’s heard it from the boy himself, who can’t shut up about it. “I want to know how the first werewolf laws got passed and why they stopped short of forcing them to register.”
Mulciber blinks and says cautiously, “It’s going to take me a while to write to Sabia and get that information from her.”
“As long as you do it,” Tom says softly, with a command that the older boy can still hear, and comes back to the couch and looks at Mulciber’s essay.
It would be laughably easy to correct it with his own insights, but Professor Dumbledore knows his writing by now, so there’s no point. Tom does find a few places in the chapter of the third-year textbook that Mulciber can refer to, and explains the main concept the boy was struggling with. It seems he didn’t realize that visualization is a huge part of Transfiguration.
How did he take the class for two years and not understand that? But Mulciber’s idiocy is Tom’s gain.
When they’re done, Mulciber stands up and looks at Tom with something a little like awe. “Don’t know how you got so good at that, Riddle, but thanks.”
“The information, one week,” Tom says, with a slight inclination of his head, and goes back to his reading. He wants the information on werewolves because there’s none about the failed registration in any of the books in the library that he can find, and not even Professor Dumbledore will write a first-year student a pass to the Restricted Section yet.
Mulciber nods and mumbles away, and Tom continues checking his own essay with the book as if he notices none of the subtle stares.
Inwardly, he revels in it.
“Albus, could I talk to you for a moment?”
Albus raises an eyebrow and turns around. It’s hardly unusual for Horace Slughorn to feel like a chat, but he usually waits until the Great Hall if they’re already headed for dinner. “Of course.”
“I just felt I should mention that boy to you,” Horace says, bobbing his head in a way that’s always irresistibly reminded Albus of a pigeon pecking for seeds. “Riddle? Is he really a Muggleborn?”
Albus smiles. “Brilliance comes in all forms and families, I’ve told you that, Horace.”
“Oh, it’s not that, it’s not that, Albus! It’s just that he’s so brilliant, he picks up potions so intuitively…I just wondered if he had any training before Hogwarts.” Horace lowers his voice as some seventh-year Ravenclaws, moaning about NEWT revisions, go tumbling past them towards the Great Hall. “If he was in hiding from Grindelwald for political reasons.”
Albus smothers the prick of pain at the sound of Gellert’s name. It’s almost easy this time. Not many people talk about Gellert, who is known but not yet infamous, and working in Germany to recruit Dark wizards to his cause.
“No, nothing like that. His name really is Tom Riddle, and he comes from a Muggle orphanage in London.”
Horace gives a small sigh and nods. “I feared it might be that. Well. Be assured that the boy shall want for nothing in my classroom, Albus. If I can give him a good recommendation that might get him in a job in the Ministry, I will.”
“I’m sure he’d appreciate that, Horace.” And Albus is not being sarcastic. Few Muggleborns can rise high in the Ministry, and Tom will like knowing that more professors than his magical mentor favor him.
They’ve barely entered the Great Hall when one of the seventh-year Ravenclaws who passed them earlier comes sprinting up to them. Her hair is in disarray and she’s panting so hard that it takes Albus a moment to recognize her as Mindy Glasswright, one of his students.
“Prof-professors! Please, you have to help him.” She bends over and clutches at her heart, her wild hair spilling around her face.
“My dear girl, tell us who you mean,” Horace is beginning, a little impatient, but Albus has a terrible feeling that he may know. He takes a step back from Miss Glasswright and looks at the Ravenclaw table.
Yes. Lawrence Urquhart is missing. Albus caught him trying to sneak into the Restricted Section a few months ago, and some of the things the boy has said when he didn’t know Albus was close enough to overhear…
“Miss Glasswright,” he says, and catches her attention firmly enough that she gulps and nods. “Has Mr. Urquhart gone up to the Astronomy Tower?”
“Yes,” she whispers. “Oh, sir, he—he didn’t mean to, but someone else told me one of those awful shadow grimoires is in his bed, and—”
Albus shakes his head, getting rid of the question of blame. “Please do your part to keep students in the Great Hall, Horace,” he says, and then turns and strides away from the hall, towards one of the secret passages that will get him to the roof of the Astronomy Tower faster. His mind leaps and buzzes in the meantime with memories of old spells he and Gellert studied, and he begins to draw his magic up to the surface of his skin.
He’s going to need it.
Tom pauses when he notices Professor Dumbledore running past him, towards the Astronomy Tower. Most of the time he insists on moving around like he’s an old man, and that exasperates Tom so much. But right now, he’s sprinting. His auburn beard whips behind him. His eyes—
His eyes are bright and deadly.
Tom has to see what’s going on, because Professor Dumbledore never acts like this. He turns around and follows him.
They come out on the top of the Astronomy Tower so quickly that Tom’s lungs are burning. But he’s right there, and he’s caught up, and he’s going to see what Professor Dumbledore can do when his power is roused. Tom still can’t see auras, but right now, he thinks he can feel them. Professor Dumbledore’s is like a burning hand laid alongside his cheek.
“Go back now, Tom.”
He knew I was there without even looking back at me. Of course, Tom becomes aware a second later that the professor probably heard his breathing and footsteps, but it still seems impressive. “No.”
“This is shadow-summoning, Tom. You don’t understand. This young man is up here because he’s under their influence, now, and he will try to spread the evil as far as he can, so it will drift to earth a great ways away.” Professor Dumbledore snaps out the words, turning his head in sharp clicks that let him see everything. Tom looks with him, but he can’t see any other man up here. “I have no time to spare—”
Abruptly, Professor Dumbledore leaps straight up into the air, and Tom throws himself flat, as a crackling grey bolt of magic shoots past his head. Professor Dumbledore lands next to it and slices down with his wand, barking a spell Tom has never heard of. “Cinefactus!”
The grey bolt of magic catches fire all along the edges, writhing, and burns until it’s only ashes. Tom lies flat on the stone and stares at it with his mouth open. He didn’t know you could do that with pure magic.
“Mr. Urquhart.” Tom looks up and sees the professor walking towards a student who stands on one of the parapets of the tower, wearing a Ravenclaw tie. “You can still be saved. Come back to me now. Shadow grimoires are nothing to play with. The shadows have taken over your mind. This is not you.”
“This is exactly me! They wouldn’t respect me? They wouldn’t give me what I wanted?” Urquhart holds his hands out. “Well, look at me now!”
I am looking at you, Tom thinks. You’re crawling with slimy grey magic, and you look half-insane. Whatever respect anyone had for you would be gone now. You are a very great fool.
“Mr. Urquhart.” Dumbledore looks incredibly weary. Tom wonders if the effort of running up the stairs and leaping over the grey bolt of magic has tired him out already. “I ask you another time, give up the shadows and come back to us. There is no reason to think that whatever made you vulnerable, whether sadness or grief or the mere possession of a shadow grimoire—”
“There’s nothing you can do to stop me!” Urquhart cackles, and starts to roll up a ball of shadow with his hands. Tom supposes the wandless aspect of it is impressive, if you ignore that the magic seems to be eating his skin off his bones.
“A third time I ask you, Mr. Urquhart.” Dumbledore almost whispers the words.
“Nothing!” Urquhart shrieks, and lifts his hands to lob the greasy shadow magic at Professor Dumbledore.
Dumbledore nods slowly, and speaks, with what Tom thinks is incredible sadness, a single word. “Comburo.”
Tom has to duck his head at the light that explodes from Dumbledore’s wand. But he lifts his head again instantly, eyes tearing and blinking, determined to make out what’s happening. Dumbledore’s aura is pressing against him now like a warm cat.
The flames that leaped from Dumbledore’s wand are encircling Urquhart now, but they don’t seem to be burning him, to Tom’s puzzlement. They eat the shadow in his hands, and they eat the rest of it dripping around his clothes and shoulders, but then they dive into his skin. Urquhart screams and ducks his head.
A second later, he utters a scream of loss like nothing Tom has ever heard.
The fire goes on ringing him, crowding into him, burning him. Tom can’t smell burning flesh or cloth. Nonetheless, he’s sure the boy is losing far more than a bit of fabric. He looks at Professor Dumbledore.
Dumbledore’s face is set in stern lines, but he’s blinking slowly. Tom sees the flames’ glitter catch on tears making their way down his cheeks.
Tom stares. He doesn’t understand. He has no time for pitying his enemies, but he knows some people do. If you can pity someone, why would you use that kind of spell?
Other people, Tom decides, not for the first time, make no sense.
The fire goes on burning, until Urquhart suddenly starts sobbing instead of screaming. Dumbledore immediately cancels the spell, with a simple jerk of his wand, and rushes to the boy’s side.
“How are you feeling, Mr. Urquhart?” he asks softly. Tom strains his ears, but he’s sure he doesn’t miss the next words Dumbledore utters. “Do you still have any of your magic left?”
Tom widens his eyes. That—that spell was a spell to burn away magic?
Urquhart says something Tom can’t hear at all. Dumbledore only nods, as if he’s not surprised by whatever he hears, and helps the boy to his feet. They stumble towards the stairs that lead down from the Tower.
Dumbledore collects Tom with a single glance on the way—a warning glance. Tom knows after he sees Dumbledore’s eyes that he’s not supposed to talk about what he’s seen here today.
But I am going to hear about it, he thinks, as he follows Professor Dumbledore and Urquhart. I never knew there was magic like that. How could he keep from telling me there was magic like that?
Albus sighs as he settles into his chair by the fire. His head is ringing and his hand is trembling. Using such powerful Light magic always takes a lot out of him, and he hasn’t had time to rest since Miss Glasswright told him about Urquhart and the shadow grimoire. He reaches for a vial that he keeps for very special occasions, tucked in a notch on the underside of the desk, and tips a few grains carefully into his glass just before the door opens.
“I want to talk to you, Professor Dumbledore.”
Albus sips the wine before he turns to look at Tom. The boy drops to sit bolt upright on the chair that’s usually his and stares at Albus with a devouring hunger in his eyes. Albus saw the same thing at Christmas, and sometimes he sees it in class, when Tom comes across new information about magic.
“You want to know what the spells I used on the roof were,” Albus says, and sighs again. “And why.”
“Yes.” Tom is almost vibrating. He places a hand flat on Albus’s desk, and taps it up and down. “What is shadow magic? Why did it matter if Urquhart was on the Tower? Why did you burn up his magic? Is that Light magic? What is it? Why did you do it? Why—”
Albus raises a hand, and Tom subsides with a faint flush. Chuckling, Albus shakes his head. He’s tired and grieving at the necessity of taking most of a young man’s magic, but he has to admit, it does him good to see Tom so intensely alive and interested.
“The shadow magic is contained in the shadow grimoires. Books that should have been destroyed long ago when they were first infested, but the Ministry refused to do so, because they were old and valuable.” Albus rolls his eyes. He sat in on some of those discussions, and they make no more sense now than they ever did. “And now they’re free to infest wizards.”
“You make the shadow magic sound like a—parasite.”
“That is exactly what it is, my dear boy.” Albus considers whether he should refill his glass, but in the end only reaches for the wine. He doesn’t want to explain things like his powder to Tom yet. “A creature with a very low level of sentience. It exists only to corrupt wizards and perpetuate itself. Any book that’s infested can become a shadow grimoire, it doesn’t matter what kind of tome it was originally. The shadows creep into a wizard’s magic and turn him into a vessel for spreading them. If Urquhart had succeeded in what he planned—which he thought was casting a spell to make himself more powerful—then his body would have exploded and spread the spores of shadow far and wide. Height makes it more effective, you see.”
Tom looks more than ill. He swallows. “But when it’s in the books—”
“It spreads far more slowly,” Albus says, with a nod. “It can spread from book to book on the shelf, but even that takes a long time. For it to spread to a wizard from the shadow grimoire, the wizard must possess it and use it for several months. And become distracted by the temptation of power, and open himself to possession by the parasite.”
“Why didn’t I know about this?”
“We didn’t know about the infestation here. And it may still have come from Mr. Urquhart’s family library or a book he bought in Knockturn Alley. It’s a rare disease. We don’t concern ourselves with treating it until an infected book or wizard appears.”
Tom stares at his feet. Then he looks back up. “And the spells you used on the roof?”
“The first simply incinerated the shadow magic bolt that attempted to infect us. The last…” Albus massages his forehead. It’s starting to ache. He wishes he could have the comfort of Fawkes right now, but the phoenix is with young Mr. Urquhart, soothing him as much as possible. “You heard me ask Mr. Urquhart to surrender three times?”
“That’s part of the price for using powerful Light magic. I could not have burned out Mr. Urquhart’s shadow infestation, and thus his corrupted magic, unless I had given him a fair chance to surrender and cast the spell itself with pure intentions.”
“What happens if you don’t?”
“Then the Light spell would have turned on me and eaten my magic.”
Tom actually sways in his chair. Albus blinks. He has to admit, he didn’t predict how Tom would react to the very notion of losing his magic. It obviously matters more to him than Albus knew.
“But—everyone talks about Light magic and Dark magic like they’re good and evil,” Tom finally says. “Not…”
Albus nods. “Remind me to up your reading level, my boy. I didn’t realize the books I was giving you weren’t advanced enough.”
“But what’s the difference?”
“The price for using them. Dark magic can corrupt the user and perpetuate itself by ensuring he casts only Dark magic in the future. It’s related to shadow magic in that way, though thankfully it’s not actually a parasite. Light magic punishes the user who isn’t pure of heart or doesn’t give the target a chance to avoid the consequences.”
Tom is silent for so long Albus thinks he’s going to leave. Then he says, “I think—I need to think about it.”
“Of course you should,” Albus says gently. It’s been a long day. He wants to go to sleep and hopefully avoid dreaming about Gellert. “Remind me to give you some proper books in the morning, though, especially the ones that discuss the shadow magic infestation.”
Tom stands up slowly, but he’s still not leaving. He’s staring at Albus instead. Albus tilts his head to the side and blinks inquiringly.
“How much magic did you burn up?” Tom asks abruptly.
“Of Mr. Urquhart’s? There’s no way to tell until he’s had a proper evaluation in the hospital wing. I have hope that he’s not a Squib—”
“No. I mean. Your own power. You—managed spells like that. You’re a lot more powerful than you let on.”
“Yes,” Albus says simply.
“But you could have people respecting you all the time if you let loose more often.” Tom studies him intently. “Why don’t you? Some people know and respect you, but a lot don’t. The Slytherins don’t. I hear other professors talking about you too, sometimes.”
Albus musters up a smile and a finger-wag. “Time and place, my dear boy, time and place! When you’ve lived as long as I have, you’ll understand about the need to confine the awe-inspiring displays of magic to the right audience and the right battlefield.”
“Professor Dumbledore,” Tom says, with a small, displeased look that makes him look incredibly self-important, if he only knew, “if I hadn’t been on that roof, there would have been no witnesses and barely a battlefield.”
Albus beams at him. “You see?”
It’s obvious that Tom does not, but Albus does so enjoy watching students figure out challenges. Tom does seem inclined to leave now, but then he turns around again at the last minute and stares Albus dead in the eye. Albus restrains his instinctive Legilimency. Despite how piercing Tom’s eyes seem, he won’t have learned Occlumency or mind-reading skills of his own yet.
“I was wondering,” Tom mutters, “how powerful you really were. And what good it was if you never displayed it. And sometimes I was upset when the Slytherins called me your pet.”
Albus starts to nod and offer a response that will help Tom navigate some of those waters among his classmates, but Tom interrupts. “But I think—if I have to be someone’s pet, better the one of the most powerful wizard I’ve ever met, right?”
Albus could castigate Tom for saying that. He could lecture him for valuing power over-much, or paying too much heed to the insults of pure-bloods without a tenth of his talent or intellect.
But he’s learned some things since taking Tom in. Instead, he nods mildly back and says, “While I do prefer the term protégé, I think that you’re correct in essence, Tom.”
“I can still stay with you over Easter holidays? And the summer?”
“You’re always welcome, Tom.”
One more sharp nod, and finally Tom slips out the door. Albus levels himself carefully out of the chair, removes another vial of the powdered potion from the desk, and makes his way to his bedroom.
But despite the stiffness in his muscles and the brewing headache behind his eyes, he is content. He has won more than one kind of victory today.
Tom walks slowly towards the library. He meant to go to the common room, but curfew’s not for an hour yet, and he wants to look up shadow magic and Light magic and power levels in wizards and…all sorts of things.
He’s thinking hard about Professor Dumbledore. The way he came and got Tom out of the orphanage. The way the Slytherins despise him. The way a magnificent phoenix sits by his side day in and day out. How he told Tom the pure-bloods don’t know what to do with him, given his family name and his power and his perfect contentment teaching at a school.
Tom has been studying Dark magic in his free time, because it seems more powerful. But he wonders what kind of power it takes to make decisions of your own and stick to them, whatever other people think you should want.
To teach at a school because that’s what you enjoy, instead of fighting duels and holding off rivals all the time, just because that’s the stereotype of a powerful wizard.
To cast Light magic because you understand and agree to pay that price more than you would the price for Dark magic.
To have people stare at you in confusion and twinkle your eyes at them.
Professor Dumbledore has carved out his own path, and it occurs to Tom that, just as there are many worse names he could be called than “Dumbledore’s pet,” there are many worse things he could do than imitate his mentor.
Not that the kind of man Tom intends to be would imitate just anyone. But Professor Dumbledore is hardly just anyone, either.
Well, he’ll have the time to find out what he wants to do. He’ll spend a lot of time over the next seven years with the man who saw potential in him and picked him out of the filthy Muggle orphanage to enter his new world on terms equal to any pure-blood.
When he gets to the library, Tom walks past the shelves he’s been perusing lately, the ones that hover around the edges of the Restricted Section, and enters the shelves that contain information on countercurses, fire magic, defensive magic, and a lot of other things he’s been ignoring. Soon he finds what he’s looking for.
Tom takes the book on powerful Light magic back to his usual table, and begins to read.