Disclaimer: I do not own Harry Potter. JK Rowling does.
A/N: I am not a Dumbledore hater. I think he's a good man who is often sadly misguided, and I usually give him the benefit of the doubt on most things. However, I have a real problem with his actions in Book 1, which, in my opinion, are the two big mistakes that he never apologised for: never checking up on Harry at the Dursleys', and nearly getting him killed by letting him face Voldemort on his own at school. This is my take on how he might have justified the first one in his mind.
I may expand this later on with three or four more chapters to show how Harry wins the war handily with his newfound information, but I felt that this part could stand on its own.
Harry Potter sat down after being whisked away from the memory of an eleven-year-old Tom Riddle's first encounter with Albus Dumbledore. He was shaking.
When he didn't say anything for a moment, Dumbledore spoke. "As you saw, Harry, Tom's powers were already surprisingly well-developed for a young wizard, and, most interestingly and ominously, he had some degree of control over them—"
"That wasn't very nice, Professor," Harry blurted out.
"Setting his wardrobe on fire like that. He obviously had everything he owned in there."
"Most of it stolen," Dumbledore observed.
"Sir…" Harry's jaw worked silently as he tried to reconcile what he had just seen with his own feelings. "I…I think I might have done the same thing if I could have got away with it."
Dumbledore's face fell. "What do you mean, Harry?"
"I mean…the only things I ever owned were hand-me-down clothes that were too big for me and broken toys Dudley didn't want anymore. If I could have stolen a few small things like that without getting caught out by my aunt and uncle, well…I think I just might have."
Dumbledore gave him a warm smile. "I do not think so. You are not Voldemort, Harry."
"But…" Harry's voice was quivering, but he summoned his Gryffindor courage and pushed on. "That boy wasn't Voldemort yet. I mean, yeah, he was starting to be that way, but it wasn't too late for him yet if someone had tried to help him. Did you even try—but no, you never tried with me."
"I do not understand."
"You knew. You told me last spring you knew I would 'suffer' at my aunt and uncle's house. 'Ten dark and difficult years', you said. You must have known what was going on. You even addressed my first letter to 'The Cupboard Under the Stairs.'"
Dumbledore's eyes went wide with shock. "The cupboard under the…my dear boy, those letters are addressed automatically. I never thought even they would—Why didn't you tell anyone?"
"They moved me out of there as soon as they saw the letter—" Harry said blinking back tears. "And…and I was embarrassed…and I'd finally found a place where I fit in, and I didn't want to mess it up."
"Harry, I'm very sorry you had to go through that…Was there anything else?"
"You can probably guess. They made me do all the chores, never gave me anything new. They usually fed me well enough to get by, but there were a couple of times…actually, it was anytime I showed accidental magic. They'd lock me in my cupboard, only let me out to use the bathroom, and I certainly wouldn't get three squares a day. They only started treating me well last summer because Mad-Eye threatened them—and because I saved Dudley's life."
"Ah, well, then, it seems things didn't turn out too badly in the end," Dumbledore said cryptically. "And it is getting late," he said, gesturing to the dark windows outside. "I hope you are not too sleepy to pay attention to this, but I would like to draw your attention to several significant points of this memory."
"I'm not sleepy, sir."
But Dumbledore ignored him. "Firstly, did you notice the young Riddle's irritation at being told to contact another person who shared his first name, 'Tom'?"
Harry rolled his eyes. "Yes, but—"
"You see, then, that even at that age, he already looked with contempt on anything that made him 'ordinary', that made him like other people—"
"But, sir," Harry interrupted, "is that really that important?"
"Harry, it is of the utmost importance. I believe it was Sun Tzu who first said, 'Know your enemy'."
"Professor, my enemy is a self-absorbed, immortality-obsessed psychopath who looks down on everyone else like they're dirt, foe and ally alike, and the scariest part is, I feel like I already know him far too well." Dumbledore flinched back. Harry paused and considered whether or not to speak further, but he continued, "Professor, The sixteen-year-old Riddle in the diary told me there were 'strange likenesses' between us. I…I hate to say it, but I think he was more right than he knew. In that memory, he was just a scared eleven-year-old boy who had no friends, no adults he felt he could trust, and was terrified of the consequences if anything 'funny' happened. That describes my childhood just as well. If I'd been able to control my magic like he did—been able to take control, who's to say I wouldn't have turned out the same way?"
"That would have been quite impossible, Harry," Dumbledore said calmly. "Do you remember what else I told you last spring? The power that Voldemort knows not?"
"Yeah, I remember," Harry said with annoyance. "It's love—or so you say. But that's just it. Even if, somehow, that's true…Well, it just doesn't make sense. You keep telling me my greatest strength is love, but what love did I experience growing up? I'm ten years behind the curve on love. It's only sheer dumb luck that your secret weapon didn't turn out to be an emotionally stunted wreck or a complete psychopath himself."
Dumbledore sighed heavily, as if this were a door that he very much didn't want to open. "It was more than luck, Harry," he admitted.
"I knew quite well that no matter what happened to you in that house, you would turn out alright."
"Alright?" Harry said, his voice rising. "You think I turned out alright?"
"I see no reason to think otherwise. You have never been seduced by the Dark Arts—never, even for a moment, been tempted to join Voldemort's side."
"Of course I wouldn't go with Voldemort! He killed my mum and dad! But the Dark Arts? Hagrid had to stop me getting a book of curses to use on Dudley my first day in the magical world. It's only because I wasn't allowed to do magic outside of school that I didn't hex all three them into submission after first year."
"And you would have felt badly about it. Given the chance, you would have attempted to reconcile with them."
"Well…maybe…" He remembered last year, when he could easily have let Dudley get Kissed by that Dementor, and that right after Dudley had tried to punch him out and nearly got them both Kissed. But he also remembered storming out after Aunt Marge had insulted his parents for the last time. And then he remembered, tears filling his eyes once again, looking into the Mirror of Erised five years ago.
All I ever wanted was a decent family.
"Do you see?" Dumbledore said, as if he had heard the thought—and maybe he did. Harry knew he was a Legilimens. "For all the difficulties you have had, you have retained your humanity, which is more than Voldemort can say."
"But how?" Harry shouted. "How could you possibly know that? How do you know my saving people thing hasn't been an act this whole time? How do you know hiding everything didn't turn me into a master Occlumens, and I'm just faking it? How do you know Tom hasn't been secretly communicating with me through my scar since I was five, waiting for you to slip up so I could finish you off?"
"That would be quite impossible."
"Love! Your mother's love for you, and through her, the spirit of love that remains strong in you, in spite of everything you have faced."
"Tell me, Harry, did your aunt or uncle ever once hit you in that house?"
He thought back. It did seem odd, from what little he knew of the pattern of abuse. "No," he admitted. "They'd try once in a while, but I always dodged them. And Dudley did, but he was my age, and I was usually quick enough to get away."
"So none of them ever hurt you badly?" he pressed.
"No, I guess not."
"Were you ever at a real risk of starving?"
"I don't know. There were a couple of times I thought they were trying, but…I guess they always just gave up on it…It doesn't matter, though," Harry said sharply. "They called me a freak, said I was a burden, told me to my face they never wanted me. All that's almost as bad."
"And how did you react to them?"
Harry stopped and thought back—back to what life was like before he'd ever heard about Hogwarts and how he had handled the Dursleys. He'd talk back to them sometimes when he didn't get his way (not that it ever helped). He'd crack jokes at their expense and run away before they could catch him. It was almost like a game sometimes. Why would he do that if he was so afraid of them the rest of the time? It didn't add up.
"Your mother's sacrifice did far more than protect you from Voldemort's curse that night," Dumbledore explained. "It protected you from your own relatives in their home—your aunt and cousin, who share your mother's blood, and your uncle, who is also bound to the charm by his marriage to your aunt. With Lily Potter's protection upon you, they could not harm you." He held up a hand. "Yes, I know they treated you badly—worse than even I suspected. But nothing they did could truly have damaged you. They tried to hit you, and they missed, you dodged, they lost their nerve, or they simply didn't hit that hard, like your cousin. They tried to starve you, and they 'gave up on it', as you said, before you were at serious risk. You see, Harry, they could not have killed you, even if they had tried. Nor could they have done you any lasting injury, either physical or psychological."
Harry sat frozen, his mind racing, trying to reevaluate everything he knew about his life according to these revelations. Psychological? What, now?
Dumbledore noted the look of confusion on his face and continued: "They neglected you, insulted you, threatened you, punished you for accidental magic, and treated you like their personal house elf. And yet, you shook it all off with ease. You picked up at Hogwarts right where you left off, well-adjusted, making friends, and enjoying yourself. What you went through, Harry, is something no child should have to endure, but you have not only endured, but thrived in spite of it, because your mother's sacrifice placed on you the protection of her love—a protection both physical and emotional. Her love has always been with you. It flows in your very veins. No matter how much those in your physical presence tried to make you feel unloved—relatives or no, in fact—no matter how much the outside world turned against you, she was always with you, supporting you, even if you were not consciously aware of it. And that, my boy, is how I knew you would come to Hogwarts safe and whole, come what may."
Harry sat speechless as the Headmaster finished his explanation. He ought to be happy about it, he thought. He ought to be happy that his mother had done so much for him, even in death—that her love touched him even from beyond the grave. Dumbledore clearly wanted him to be happy about it—otherwise, it would disrupt the old man's plans still further. But at the moment, all Harry could feel was a white-hot anger growing within him. What Dumbledore did to him—it was wrong! It was cruel! Maybe all the more cruel for this.
"W-w-why didn't you tell me all this sooner," Harry said softly, trying to keep his anger in check. It was a losing battle.
"I confess that my perspective on such things has not always been the best, as I explained to you last spring. In any event, you have, in fact, turned out to be a fine and caring young man."
"But I never knew any of that!" Harry spat. "I was sure that one of those days they really were going to beat me—or starve me—or throw me out on the street. What, you let a little kid suffer in an abusive home for ten years without so much as checking up on him just because you knew everything would turn out alright? I wonder if you would have done that if you saw it for yourself. What if you had actually seen that your great Saviour of the Wizarding World was a terrified six-year-old boy cowering in a cupboard on threadbare blankets because he'd got a higher grade than his lazy oaf of a cousin? I wonder how the rest of the wizarding world would react if they knew that's who they were looking to for a saviour. Maybe we should find out. You can take photos of a Pensieve memory, can't you?"
"Harry, you wouldn't do that."
"Oh, wouldn't I? After all these years, have you forgotten who my mother was? You know what? You're right. I can feel her love for me. Right now, she's telling me that that prophecy of yours is missing an 's', and you'd better watch out because after I'm done taking care of your little Voldemort problem, I'm coming after you next—" But Harry stopped short, his gaze drawn back to the old headmaster's withered hand. "Ohhh…but you're already dying, aren't you?"
"Harry, this is not the time…"
"Oh I think this is the perfect time, Professor. And I notice you didn't actually deny it." Was Dumbledore actually turning pink at those words? "Is that why we're having these private lessons, Professor? So you can tell me all this oh so important information about Riddle's childhood before you kick it? Were you planning on telling me this at all, before? Or were you just going to keep hinting at things until I stumbled onto the right answer and nearly got myself killed in the process, like you usually do?"
Dumbledore looked genuinely angry, now, if Harry were still in the mood to care. "My stratagems have not always gone as…cleanly as I've hoped," he grumbled. "Since you insist, it is true that I have far less time remaining than I would like—a year, if I am fortunate, and that did figure into my plans for you. But things are not quite as urgent as you suppose, and it is getting quite late."
"Oh, no you don't. Not this time. We're just getting started."
"No. I'm tired of only having half the story. If you really want me to fight Voldemort, then I want to have all the available tools at my disposal. And you are going to give them to me."
"If you think you are trying to threaten me," Dumbledore said warningly, not moving from his spot, "you will be sorely disappointed."
"Don't be so sure, Professor. I still don't think you understand what I'm capable of. I've got my own private army, remember? There's about thirty of them still here. Plus, Hermione's been running all over the Restricted Section looking for ways to fight the Death Eaters—you yourself are the one who keeps saying there are worse things than death."
The Headmaster was about to reply to that, but even he paled a bit when he saw a pair of eyes like green ice glaring back at him. Severus had warned him once about that look. It was not a look one wanted to cross.
Harry sensed he had gained the upper hand and stepped toward him, bringing them almost nose-to-nose, and spoke with a voice as icy as his gaze: "Now you're going to tell me everything, and I mean everything about your plan to defeat Voldemort, or I'm going to let that famous Lily Evans temper off the chain."
And the rest, as they say, is history.