A/N with apologies to and inspiration from Silverpard's Insurgere, the greatest Tom Riddle alt!sort fic there is.
Tom Riddle is adrift at sea, slipping through the cracks and into the gutters. He is only eleven years old and already his fate is all too clear. Nobody wants to adopt a sick orphan boy who never talks. Who looks at you with such an unsettling gaze. He will be driven from the orphanage when he is old enough, and then he will disappear.
Here is the truth about Tom: He says nothing, but watches everything.
Years later, Mrs. Cole can remember him speak only one time. It was behind closed doors, after that teacher came to invite him to a school called Hogwarts. It was the only thing that she could hear as she waited outside.
She is wrong about Tom, as it turns out. He disappears long before he would have been too old for the home. It is his fifteenth birthday, and he is gone. There is never a single clue.
But the magical world still knows the name Tom Riddle. Oh indeed. Still hardly talkative, but a star student at everything that he does. He is a credit to his house.
"Tom," Dumbledore says one day. "Why were you sorted into Ravenclaw?"
The boy turns to him but doesn't answer. He seems to wait instead, though for what Dumbledore can't tell. Dumbledore is about to speak again when Tom moves, and then Dumbledore realizes that the boy was thinking.
No. Weighing his options. Judging the advantage to be gained by this or that action.
Tom withdraws a silver memory from his head and lets it slip into a glass jar that Dumbledore quickly conjures. He leaves as soon as he is done, and Dumbledore examines it.
It is a memory of Mrs. Cole. She is reading a book, not paying any attention at all to her surroundings. It is easy for Tom to sneak up beside her and begin to read. Not out of any interest in the book but out of interest in the words themselves. He already has an idea, at the age of five, of the power that words can have, and even the most dismal literature is special at this point. There is so little of it, after all.
She notices him a few pages later. She is about to send him away— Dumbledore can see it in her eyes— but at the last instant she withdraws her hand. He is reading it, she realizes. He is not merely looking at ink shapes on paper. They have meaning to him, despite being so far advanced beyond his age.
Mrs. Cole asks him if this is so and he nods. It is a little thing that follows, so far as Mrs. Cole is concerned, but Dumbledore perceives that it was a seminal experience for Tom. Nothing happens then, but Tom is as able to connect the dots as easily as Dumbledore, and memories follow the first in brief flashes like fireflies in the dark. He is punished for all manner of indiscretions, but the punishments are an excuse to force— to let— him study.
The books are Mrs. Cole's or on loan to her, and in the course of time they are of every variety. He retrieves them from her at every study session, he reads in the open, and he hands them back to her before he departs. No-one dares to steal them. They are not his to be stolen.
Such a little thing in her eyes, but it tips the scales for Tom. Dumbledore can see the sheen of another fate incubating in these years. He can see Tom growing angry. He can see Tom growing aggressive and finding ways to strike back at his abusers. But by the time that Tom turns ten years old he has made a realization.
Safety is possible. And it lies with knowledge.
"No," Dumbledore says to himself. "It lies in learning."
There is a difference, and both Tom and Dumbledore are aware of it. Just as Dumbledore is aware that Tom gave him these memories because he thought that it would it would influence his teacher in some way. He must be aware of that, too. Dumbledore will not underestimate his student so far as to think that Tom believed that he could play his teacher without being found out. That means that Tom is counting on it.
Dumbledore is amused as he has not been for a long time. It brings to mind memories of the past. Bright memories, of clever friends now dead or locked away.
Eventually he decides. He decides to let it go, and continue to observe young Tom. No, not Tom, or at least not Tom alone. Tom's surroundings, too. His circumstances. Dumbledore thinks that the boy may yet be at a precarious place in his life, and if his sense of security is destroyed then it will be too easy for Tom to turn back into the angry boy that he once was. Dumbledore could feel it in his memories, the hope that everything might break him if he didn't break it first.
Dumbledore sometimes wonders, over the years, if that was Tom's goal, to win a protector. Because he has done so. Dumbledore smoothes out the path that the young man is on. Tom needs a quiet place to work, Dumbledore decides. Or maybe not quiet, per se. Nor stress-free. But secure. Yes. Definitely that.
He is happy to notice Tom's interest in the Department of Mysteries, and more than pleased to put in a good word with some of his friends there to make sure that everything goes smoothly. Not that he really needed to, the boy is simply phenomenal, but it definitely didn't hurt and it was the least that Dumbledore could do.
It doesn't escape him that this was, without a doubt, Tom's idea all along.
Still, Tom is nicely tucked away in the depths of the Ministry, doing what he does best, and Dumbledore couldn't be happier. Such a bright young man, and such a tricky road he had been forced to walk. But walk it he had and safely on the other side he was.
So confident is he, so complacent, that he slowly drops out of touch with Tom as the years go by. It is easy to do. Europe is still in a complicated state of affairs, Tom is slipping further and further into his research, Dumbledore's responsibilities at Hogwarts are growing, Tom stops going outside the Ministry at all and eats and sleeps in his office... and one day Dumbledore realizes that it has been a very long time since he has last visited Tom.
That is when he learns that Tom has left the magical world as well.
Dumbledore never hears from Tom again. But he does hear rumors. A man of sick pallor who holds unscheduled meetings with promising wizards in the middle of the night. Books and research papers being stolen or destroyed. Other times, mysterious notes that solve problems that the finder had been working on for months or years.
Dumbledore is sure that Tom is there in the center of it, guiding the direction of discovery like an invisible hand. There is no apparent pattern to it except that they all relate to problems. They are difficult. They are interesting. There are others who have connected the rumors and wonder what the common link is but Dumbledore knows better. The only pattern that is apparent to them is the only pattern that is there at all. It is discovery for the sake of discovery.
It is shining a light into the darkness.
It is, Dumbledore sometimes worries, learning without scruples. How far would Tom be willing to go for the sake of an interesting problem?
There are other things that happen in the shadows. Things that Dumbledore never hears of or puts together. Disappearances where disappearances should be expected. The loss of books so foul that their theft goes unnoticed because no-one is permitted to even look at them.
Dumbledore looks for him sometimes, but it's like chasing a ghost.
He becomes a wraith on the edge of imagination.
Some vanish. Others find themselves rewarded, should they do what the shadow orders.
He travels to the sand-swept roads of Cairo. To the plateaus and hollow cliffs that lay beyond the Himalayas. To the catacombs of Rome and Paris. To the dead city Lin Lin, where nameless idols sat on red-gold thrones in the darkness beneath Antarctic ice.
He charts the courses of Fomalhaut and Pluto, and writes treatises on what the dead have told him of the moon and stars. He delves into deep pits and stares into the abyss until it cowers from his sight and turns away.
Tom grows long in darkness and long in years, and he lurks at the edges of the real.
He becomes all transformation, more activity than actor. He is a thought in the night, a trembling of the bones, a fever-nightmare that lingers long into the light of day.
He outlives Dumbledore. He outlives Severus Snape, outlives Colin Creevey, outlives wizards born a hundred years after his peers had all died. "Cole," he whispers once, and he can almost remember what the word once meant to him. He can hardly remember even Dumbledore.
The Department of Mysteries? It is no exaggeration to say that he forgets more than they have ever known. He even forgets where all of his horcruxes are. He can barely remember who Tom is— and sometimes he can't do it at all. Sometimes he talks to nothing, or he thinks that nothing is Tom and that the name was always only a hollow wisp that danced into his mind from some ghastly dream.
He outlives everyone, outlives everything, and he loses track of the time that he is alone, lost in a hall of smoke and mirrors.
It is only the research that matters to him. The plunge into the sea, the connection between possibility and reality where he and knowledge meet in rapturous tête-à-tête.
When he awakens to awareness, he does not know how long it has been that he has been moving automatically, machine-like. The lucid periods seem so far between, and then he realizes, for the fifth (eighth, twelfth, fifteenth, thirtieth) time that they are all dead. It could have been a decade since it happened, or twelve thousand years. A forgotten experiment of his that got loose, or something entirely unrelated to him. Either way, the buildings are all empty now.
(He wonders how long it took for everyone to die)
He ignores it for a time. Then he needs research materials and fresh ingredients. It takes a long time, but he scarcely considers the passing of hours anymore except as his experiments require. Soon he will no longer be alone, and as he does his work and performs the necessary spells and rituals, playing demiurge to an empty world, it all feels so familiar. He wonders how many times he has done this before, how many times he has survived everything again.
He tries to remember the name of the world that he stands on now, and wonders if he has ever been on any other, or if it is the warping of his memories or even the sheer passage of time that make the constellations look so different from when he was young.