ONE: Epilogue

"Hullo, Professor?"

Professor Snape looked up to see Tom standing in his doorway, and beckoned him in. "Did you have a question on today's work?"

Tom shrugged. "No, sir. Not really. I had a question on another matter, actually, if you'd hear it."

Severus raised one eyebrow. "A question you believe I won't wish to answer, if the rare book you left on my desk last night is any indication."

Tom's gaze remained steady, though he quirked a smile. "You're the only professor who doesn't seem charmed by me in the slightest," he confided. "I rather like it, actually."

Snape returned a razor-edged smile of his own. "A statement which could, in and of itself, be seen as an attempt to charm, Mister Riddle."

"Can't help it," Tom replied with a shrug. "Born this way, I suppose."

"I suppose," Professor Snape replied slowly. "Your question, then: out with it."

"Sir, I wondered what you know about… about Horcruxes. I came across the term while reading and I didn't fully understand it."

Severus stiffened in his chair, staring across his desk at the poised young man before him, who looked innocently inquiring; but then, he could just be that good.

Severus folded his hands atop his desk; he could not deny he had been anticipating such an inquiry, even if he had not been certain that today was the day. He examined the Riddle boy until he began to dart his eyes back and forth from his professor to the floor of Severus's office.

"Do you still have nightmares about your father's death?" Severus finally said.

Tom's cool poise fell away, and he fidgeted in place. "Yes, sir," he said, in a low, fragmented voice. "They're – they're very real. And, and that's part of why I want to know about Horcruxes, because I know enough to know they're linked to the idea of immortality."

"And if you had a Horcrux," Snape supplied, "you'd be safe. Nothing bad could ever happen to you? As it did to your father. And your mother before him."

Tom said nothing; he stood before the Potions Master's desk, white-faced.

"A Horcrux chips away at the soul until there is only madness and anger and grief left," Snape pressed ruthlessly. "You might live a long while, but not as yourself."

Snape watched Tom's throat work as he swallowed; then the boy shook his head and turned to go.

"What?" he said. "Go on," he urged, "what is it?"

Tom turned. "I feel that way all the time," he said suddenly, "full of all those things, and I can't see how it's any different except that I'd get to live longer and be less afraid. Sometimes," he went on in a rush, "I think I really did kill him, I know I killed him, and I'm glad, and then I'm sick with it, and I have these dreams, these dreams." He glared at Severus. "I'm not an idiot."

"I know you're not. Not all of the young are fools, much as it may sometimes appear so," Snape replied. He paused. "Would you like to be Obliviated?"

Tom's head jerked up and he stared at him wildly for a moment, hope and fear warring on his face. Then his shoulders slumped. "No," he said.

"Will you speak with Draco?"

Severus knew that speaking to Draco was one of Tom's favorite things, next to listening to the boy play a battered Irish flute. "Yes," he replied. "Draco tells me the things no one else will," he said after a moment.

"I daresay he does," Professor Snape replied. "I'm surprised you haven't asked him about this before."

Tom threw his head back and laughed. "Isn't it obvious, Professor? I'm terrified that he'll tell me the truth."

"I wouldn't have thought so," Severus said. "You seem a very forthright young man yourself, in your way."

"Thank you, sir. I believe it's why I value you and Draco Malfoy so much," he said. "And Potter too, if to a lesser extent. All of you do your best to see the world as it is, not as you wish it to be; and you present yourselves as nothing more and nothing less than what you are. It is a rare quality, one I am trying my best to emulate."

Snape quirked a smile. "Now I am charmed."

"Then my mission is complete."

"Tom…" Snape rose, crossed his office to press a hand to his shoulder. "You were…"

Tom paused, looking up at him with his head tilted to the side.

"…probably wanting some Dreamless Sleep," Snape said. "You know," he added, "sometimes nightmares are just nightmares."

"Yes, sir," Tom said, and looked relieved at the lie.

"You must promise to come to me or to Draco if you have these thoughts again," Professor Snape said, lowly, pressing a small bottle into Tom's hand.

"Yes, sir," Tom repeated, holding the bottle up to the light and turning it this way and that. "Good night, Professor. Thanks for the Dreamless."

"Good night, Tom. Sleep well," Snape said, showing the young man to his door and closing it behind him. "And sleep sound."

A/N: Well, come on, you lurkers! Time to weigh in! ;)

Thanks for sticking through this wind-y and weird story. More to come soon; I am determined to finish stories that have been moldering on my hard drive! See you later and hope you enjoyed,