The moment he looked into the dark brown eyes, Albus Dumbledore knew he was headed for trouble. No, not trouble. There was a feeling he couldn't place. It was in a smile, a word, a small gesture. Something about this child was affecting him in a way that he hadn't expected and couldn't quantify. Young Tom Riddle worried him. Yes, it was in the way he seemed drawn to dark mischief more so than other boys his age—from the beginnings of his solitary life, that was to be expected. There was also potential there. Beyond the dark eyes lay a brilliant mind that could be capable of a great deal. How this potential could be honed offered a wealth of possibilities.
It was foolish to think as much, would be even more foolish to act on this feeling, but Albus could never resist the challenges that presented themselves with each incoming group of students. There were friendships created, bonds formed, and always the one or two who would stand out as deserving of a closer look. More, if they were willing. He took it as a personal compliment that so many of them were willing to blossom under his guidance.
With this one, he would have to be careful. There were other things to consider, but Albus felt drawn to the boy excitedly going on about how he could make things happen. Oh, the things he could make happen if he would allow himself, Albus thought. As he took in the way the boy's eyes lit up when he discussed being able to learn magic, he suspected this relationship—whatever it would turn out to be—would change everything.
You're a fool, the older wizard told himself a few months later. Tom was nothing if not charismatic. It was mere weeks before the professors at the school—and, indeed, a number of the students in his year and several higher—felt the magnetic draw of young Riddle getting his bearings in his new kingdom. That he was as poised as a little prince learning the ways of court was barely discernable in the air surrounding him. Students seemed to part around him as he stalked the halls of the castle, and a small number had even begun collecting behind him during his strolls and at free periods.
They could hardly be called friendships, though Albus may have been the only one who noticed. Tom rarely directed a genuine smile at anyone or paid them any attention unless they were of use to him or special in their own way. The Slytherin children of the oldest Pureblood families were soon allied with Tom in some fashion—whether the older students were offering him tutoring for his classes or attempting to teach him spells he would not master for years.
Throughout those first weeks, the Transfiguration professor watched the young wizard learn to nod and flatter at all the right times, until he had everyone in his orbit wrapped around his wand as easily as if he'd charmed them with a spell. All but the one person who'd been most fascinated by him from the first. Now, all Albus saw was a manipulator who could put several people in his own past to shame. For such a young man to be emotionally distant from every person who reached out to him was not only sad, but familiar. Familiar in a way that brought an instant ache each time Dumbledore thought of it. An ache that reminded him of the folly of underestimating the curious and persuasive. And which told him he had to act to save this boy from himself—while there was still time.
That was the reason, just before the first Christmas break, Tom Riddle, Jr. sat in a chair in front of Dumbledore's desk; he barely resembled the quiet, easily-cowed boy Albus had met months before. Now, Tom seemed as if he were waiting for something, biding his time. Why, Albus could not be sure. From what he'd discerned of the boy's thoughts, he was reluctant to even ask.
"Why did you need to see me?"
Dumbledore refrained from expressing his surprise at the boldly asked question. He sat behind his desk and studied Tom for several moments, flitting through the boy's thoughts as Tom stared back. Finding nothing strange, he answered. "I merely wished to see how you were getting along with the other students." Albus smiled. "As I said the day we met, I want you to do well here. A part of that is making friends with the other students."
In a move so small it was barely perceptible, Riddle's eyes narrowed. "I have enough friends," he said shortly.
None, Tom thought. And why do I need them?
Dumbledore smiled wider. "I hope you continue to get along with the students at Hogwarts. A new environment can be difficult to adapt to."
"I think I've done that well." He relaxed in the chair and Dumbledore heard him tell himself to smile during his interrogation. Tom's face immediately softened and his lips curved into a small smile. "I like my professors."
"They are all fond of you as well," Dumbledore responded. "Now that you've finished your first term, do you have any questions or concerns?"
It seemed this was the opening Tom had been waiting for. As soon as the question was asked, his thoughts began whirring over a number of subjects ranging from the properties of dragon's blood to stories he'd heard about the two Unforgivable Curses. Finally, Tom settled on one subject and focused his gaze on the Transfiguration professor as he asked the most important of his questions.
"Have you found out anything about my father?"
The question was whispered and the boy's voice firm. The words came almost as if in follow-up to an unspoken order.
"I'm afraid not," Dumbledore answered. "I do admit to a certain curiosity when you asked me about him several months ago. To my knowledge, no one by that name ever attended Hogwarts."
"Does that mean he wasn't a wizard at all?"
For the first time since they'd met, there was uncertainty in that small voice, and a small amount of fear. Of not being accepted by the other children because of his lineage or lack thereof? His thoughts were so clouded at the moment, Albus could not tell.
"No, that is not what it means," Dumbledore responded. "If your father was a wizard, he may have been educated elsewhere. A number of people choose to educate their children at home. It is also possible one or both of your parents were Muggles." As Tom's face fell, Albus asked, "Why the sudden interest in your heritage?" It was not sudden, and they both knew it, but it was not a subject the child had wished to discuss with any detail before.
"I just…it's nothing. I was curious," Tom said, but his thoughts spoke differently. He could not accept the idea that his mother could have been a witch—capable of saving herself, but somehow not doing so. Even with a son to live for. It was a lot for a child his age to take on himself, the idea that his mother didn't love him enough to live for him.
Nor did he wish to believe he didn't have at least one Pureblood parent. Tom had been listening to the Slytherin House Tales of Greatness—the infamy and grandeur that came from belonging to their exclusive Pureblood club. Albus knew he'd already lied to his fellow students about his heritage and only awaited confirmation for what he thought was a certainty—his bloodline was as pure as the rest. He had come to believe his acceptance at Hogwarts and the Wizarding world at large depended on it.
Dumbledore wished suddenly that he could disabuse the child of this notion and bring him some comfort, if there was any to be had. He would have to look through the school's records. When Tom was born, there had to have been some indication he would eventually be accepted at Hogwarts. Though, whether or not either of his parents were Pureblood, Albus couldn't live with himself if he let the child believe he was not as worthy of his education as the rest of his house.
"Tom, there is nothing…inferior about being Muggle-born or half-blood," Albus began. Tom started to fidget in his seat. "As a matter of fact, some of the more prominent members of the Ministry of—"
"Isn't the Headmaster from a Pureblood family?" Tom asked.
Albus folded his hands together and placed them in the center of his desk blotter. He leaned forward. "Yes."
"Is it true that most of the professors here, the Prefects and the Head Boy and Girl for the last several years have all been Pureblood?"
The tone of the question made Albus uncomfortable, but he attempted to answer in a calm tone. "I cannot be sure of that, but it is possible. Quite a number of students at Hogwarts are Pureblood."
"Has there ever been a time when only Pureblood students were accepted?"
Ah, Albus thought. His housemates really have been telling him a great deal. "It was once suggested by a former professor at the school."
"Slytherin," Tom supplied.
Albus nodded. "Salazar Slytherin felt that only students of the purest bloodlines would benefit from a concentrated magical education, but that has never been proven true and has never been the policy at Hogwarts. Those who are capable of doing the work are accepted here, without question."
"Even those who can't afford it, who aren't good enough to—"
"There is no person of magical birth who is not good enough to attend this school," Dumbledore said, cutting him off. "I don't know who you've been listening to, but I caution you against believing the prejudices of a select few. I assure you, Tom, whatever your heritage, very few people will judge you by it. They will learn to respect you for your intelligence and ability, not for which family you were born into." Albus sat back in his chair and sighed. It would not do to lose his temper, however much the subject irritated him.
"There is nothing wrong with being proud of one's family, but living up to those expectations can be both a privilege and a burden. While you may have been told that your family's name and reputation is everything, it is my personal belief that you can make your name synonymous with anything you wish. You have no one to prove your worth to but yourself."
Tom stared back at his Transfiguration professor, disbelief pervading his thoughts, but Albus felt comforted by the number of doubts beginning to spring up about the stories he'd been told. He would have to spend more time with the child if he wanted to steer him away from the possible negative influences he'd shown himself susceptible to, even before beginning school. His own darkly inquisitive nature notwithstanding, Tom could do with some guidance. Especially with the more vocal Slytherin students seemingly taking him under their wings.
"May I leave now?" Tom asked, interrupting Dumbledore's thoughts.
Albus watched him for a moment; his expression was clear and his thoughts were merely on a project he wanted to complete before the new term began. The professor nodded and waved a hand absently to unlock his office door.
Just before Tom reached the door, Albus said, "If you ever need to talk, feel free to stop by. Any time." Then the boy walked out, not to return unless summoned again. Or so Dumbledore believed.