WHEN THE STUDENT IS READY
He'd been beautiful as a boy, even more beautiful as a young man. Even in the early stages of the transformations that would eventually rob him of his looks, he'd retained enough of his original comeliness and charm to turn heads, to make the unwary dog his footsteps like befuddled lambs and cause even those who should have known better to twist in their chairs as he passed: such presence, such charisma, the same vapid drawing-room chatter, lemmings off the cliff.
Even Albus himself might not have been completely immune, if he hadn't remembered the beginning.
Third row back, second column from the left – that had been Tom Riddle's seat in his classroom, from the first day of Transfiguration in his first year to the week before he left Hogwarts for the last time. Years after he was gone, Albus would look up from his notes, or back over his shoulder from the chalkboard, half-expecting to see those grave, wary eyes staring back at him in expectant challenge, as if to say: tell me something that makes a difference, something I don't already know.
He'd hoped that the bustle and goodwill ingrained in the castle's very walls would have leached some of that distrust away from the child over the years, as it had with so many other wounded souls who found themselves at Hogwarts. If Tom Riddle had grown inward instead of out, if that Renaissance-angel mouth had taken on a sullen curve as the boy grew to manhood under his watch, surely it wasn't anyone's fault but his own?
Or was it?
The question still haunted Albus, even now – especially now. It was the bewildered insomniac lament of the teacher who hadn't seen the tragedy coming: could I have done better, done differently, done more? Could I have turned him out for good, rather than for ill?
Hard to say.
Fawkes fluttered down to sit on his shoulder, nibbling at Albus's ear and hoping for a Jelly Slug. Albus stroked him absently.
For better or for worse, it was the memory of Tom Riddle that kept him from hating Lord Voldemort. It was the bruised look he'd seen earlier tonight in Harry Potter's green eyes, however, that made him set his jaw, push aside his sure-to-be-reviled report to the Ministry, and reach for the gold-handled Portkey that had been forgotten, in the aftermath of all that had happened, on the floor beside his desk.
Get closure, Albus. So you can do what needs doing.
He knew that Riddle would still be there, waiting for him, just as surely as he'd known fifty years ago that Rubeus Hagrid was an innocent man. Half a century now they'd been locked together in a grapple for the upper hand, Light against Dark, bloody human chiaroscuro laid out in corpses on either side: closer than friends, more intimate, in their quest, than lovers, two sides of the same coin. Albus wound his way through the tumbled gravestones, saw Riddle's dark, hunched silhouette stiffen and rise, but not turn to greet him.
"Dumbledore. My ever-present guilty conscience. I've been expecting you."
"You'll forgive my delay. I've been cleaning up the mess you made."
He heard hissing, as he got closer, and felt Fawkes' claws grip his shoulder more tightly. The great snake curled at Riddle's ankles narrowed its yellow-lantern eyes at him and spat. Riddle spoke sharply to it in Parseltongue, and its thick hose of a body retreated but did not relax. Fawkes, on his shoulder, was making a steady trilling noise – the closest a phoenix could come to growling. Albus rubbed the shiny crest of feathers on his head to quiet him.
"Of course," he went on quietly, "some spills mark the floor forever. You killed a boy today, Tom."
A jerk of the thin shoulders. "Don't call me that," Riddle said sharply. "And what's blood to me? I've spilled enough of it."
"The Diggorys are purebloods," Albus said mildly. "Neutral. Civilians. You'd no quarrel with them, nor with their son."
"He got in my way."
"He reminded me a bit of you. What you could have been—"
"—It was Potter I wanted, not him!—"
"—what you wanted to be, Tom."
"I am what I want to be!" Riddle spun, and it took all of Albus's self-control not to back away from that livid face with its pinched, reptilian features, its glowing carnelian eyes. "And don't call me that! I am Lord Voldemort!"
"Better to rule in hell than to serve in heaven?" Albus asked. Riddle flinched.
"Maybe. What's it to you? You never had to choose." The thin mouth flattened into a ruler-line. "You've always known where you belonged. Who are you to judge me?"
Albus kept his gaze steady on those raging dots of red. Once, they'd been cool and grey and considering; it was the memory of that boy behind the monster's face that kept him from flinching. "I'm your teacher," he said. "The one who failed you."
Silence, as the cadaverous white face trembled and worked. "Failed me," Riddle said finally. "Failed me?"
He started to laugh, a cold thin sound with the hint of a break in it. "Failed me," he repeated. "Dumbledore, you sentimental old idiot. How could you fail me? I never wanted what you had to give."
Albus didn't move.
"What a student wants and what he needs are sometimes very different things," he said. "I wanted to give you what you needed, and yet I did not. For that I am sorry, Tom."
Riddle didn't appear to hear him. "If anyone failed me," he said viciously, jerking a thumb toward the tombstone he'd been sitting on, "it was him. Never gave me a thing until tonight – but I finally got mine, wouldn't you say, Albus?" He made a sweeping, self-indicatory gesture with one skeletal hand. "A fair trade, d'you think? I rather fancy the look, don't you?"
"Because you never had a father," Albus said quietly, "you've taken Amos Diggory's son." Heavy with regret, he moved another step toward the man who had been his most brilliant student, and then another, ignoring the warning hissing of the giant serpent. "Before you talk of fair trades, think on that."
Riddle had frozen at his words. Albus took him by the upper arms, marvelling at how light the younger man seemed, how dried-out and hollow inside his robes. "Too little, too late," he said now. "Don't think I don't realise that."
He laid his papery lips on the cold pale brow, felt the mighty and wicked Lord Voldemort shudder under his touch. "What exactly is this supposed to prove?" Riddle muttered, shifting under his hands. Albus drew back.
"That you are forgiven, of course," he said, and held those red eyes for one more second before he turned. "Goodbye, Tom."
The old man was gone.
The snake hissed obsequiously at his ankles, but he pushed her away. "Not now, Nagini."
On his forehead, Dumbledore's kiss still stung like a touch of fire. Tom Riddle put up his fingers to touch it, then drew them away again before they could make contact.
No. Don't touch it. It never happened.
It doesn't matter. It doesn't change anything.
His eyes were aching. He'd have thought he was weeping, if his new face had come equipped with tear-ducts.
"I hate you, Albus," he said into the night. "Do you hear me? I hate you!"
No one answered.