Slughorn was playing games with other people's lives. Albus knew it and he suspected Horace was aware of that fact. But there was little he could do about it, short of raising a fuss with Tom. And what would the purpose of that be, really? To admit that he looked forward to frequent knowledge of Tom's innermost thoughts as one might look forward to a sweet reward after a trying experience. Albus couldn't confess that any more than he could admit that his growing fascination was slowly becoming something he couldn't understand. That it could grow into something difficult to control. Why it might be dangerous in its strength. It had grown to where his thoughts were occasionally so consumed with the ideas of what could be, he was distracted to the point of embarrassing stares.
Stares which Horace apparently had noticed and found amusing, if his small smile down the High Table was any indication. Albus had acknowledged his friend's smirk with a nod, let his eyes drift back to the Slytherin table for a few seconds and then planted his gaze on the half-full plate in front of him. It might be wrong, the way he was drawn to the boy, but Albus hadn't done anything that would get him into trouble. So far. He wasn't sure he could trust himself to never act on his curiosity. He supposed Horace didn't either. Perhaps that was why he had thought to warn the boy his professor might have an unusual interest in him. As if he knew Albus's motives when the Transfiguration professor could hardly make sense of them himself.
That was the trouble with acquaintances like Slughorn. One might try to forget the past, move on from previous mistakes, but there was always someone who knew the demons one tried to bury and was willing to shed a light into the darkest corners of the past. Was Horace doing so to save Albus from himself? Was the possibility of indiscretion so great the other man feared for the safety and virtue of a student?
The idea in itself was ridiculous. Curiosity was merely a manifestation of attraction borne of knowledge sought about another person. Harmless in and of itself. Albus's own predilections aside, Tom was a child, displaying no more interest in Albus than he would a particularly complicated riddle. And Albus was not a predator. That was the rub, wasn't it? For all their talk about open minds and free thinking, the number of people who believed homosexuals capable of all sorts of deviousness was staggering. Even Horace, who often displayed an unhealthy interest in his students' everyday lives, had become so concerned about the growing friendship between professor and student, he'd warned Tom. As if a mere warning would stop someone who was determined to do something so unconscionable.
But the boy had stayed away. It had been two months since the last night they'd talked and Albus felt his absence as surely as he felt the censure and quiet amusement from his colleague down the table. Horace was laughing at his interest, delighting in causing an unnecessary rift in the harmless friendship. Gloating over his apparent triumph over the monster before he could claim his victim. Should he thank Horace for the concern that inspired him to remove the temptation? Or would Albus be better served telling Horace what he could do with his assumptions and warnings, more appropriate for the Potions master himself?
Perhaps it was true. Albus had overstepped his bounds and was too proud to see it. Or was Horace's paranoia merely masking itself as innocent concern? It might be more fitting to hold up a mirror to his old friend and suggest his worries were more reflection of his inner demons than a real worry for Tom's virtue. Much as he might like to think it was true, Albus couldn't be sure. That was where his concern truly lay. His possible inability to distinguish his own actions from the prejudice he recognized in others.
His thoughts were going in circles. That, perhaps, was Horace's true intent. To make Albus doubt himself in the face of an unvoiced accusation. As his eyes drifted first to the boy at the Slytherin table quietly sharing a laugh with his companions to the Potions master several seats away, Albus made a vow to himself. He would not let anyone's bias define or restrict him in any way. He'd had enough of that to last himself several lifetimes and the broken heart to prove it.
It wasn't the stares that bothered him. Over the weeks, he'd become used to those eyes tracing over him in public, silently questioning his change in behavior. What annoyed and frightened Tom was that another student had noticed. He'd laughed it off when Abraxas Malfoy had suggested their Transfiguration professor was staring as if he could see right through him. The blonde had no idea how close he'd come to the truth. Or what had been the truth before Tom had begun steeling himself against the unwelcome invasions. It had taken everything Tom had to not blush at the words and change the subject, hoping the others wouldn't think to further examine the professor's interest and his reaction.
It was cracking. His resistance. His so-called stoicism under Dumbledore's scrutiny. Tom could no more ignore his professor than he could forget why he'd panicked weeks before. There was still an underlying fear of discovery, of being judged by someone who could not understand why his thoughts progressed as they did. There was also the small lingering curiosity that forced him to wonder how Dumbledore could know everything going on in his mind and not only not be repulsed by what he found, but appeared to be frequently drawn to it. As he was finding himself drawn to the older man's company.
That pesky inquisitive nature Dumbledore had often teased him about was now focused on the professor. Tom felt helpless to control himself, so he stopped trying. When they'd finished dinner, he made his excuses to Abraxas and the others and snuck up the stairs until he found himself in the second floor hall. It was silent, but there was still something in the air, a tension that shifted around him as he stepped closer to the office door where he knew the Transfiguration professor was poring over the Evening Prophet and sipping a cup of hot chocolate.
Tom stopped outside the office and paused, his hand on the doorknob. What was stopping him? Certainly not the supposition that he would be unwelcome. As much as he'd been obsessing over their parting company, he knew the professor had wondered at and fought against his absence. Tom wondered briefly if either of them would be honest about how comfortable they felt together and why. For his own part, why was still in question, but he felt certain the answer lay beyond the door.
Dumbledore didn't move from his desk as Tom opened the door, but the boy felt the atmosphere in the room change almost imperceptibly. A tension hung between them like an invisible cloud, palpable now that they were alone for the first time in weeks. Dumbledore looked up and locked gazes with the boy across his office, observing as the student entered and closed the door behind himself. He watched in silence as Tom crossed the room and sat in his guest chair. A small, uncertain smile tilted his lips at the corner before he straightened his expression. His bright blue eyes twinkled in the dim firelight.
"We haven't spoken in a while," Tom said.
Dumbledore nodded. He dropped his newspaper to the desk and leaned back, crossing his arms over his thin chest. His half-moon glasses slid to the edge of his nose. "I assumed you had found a better use for your time," he said slowly. "Outgrown my influence."
Tom felt his lips pull into a smile, in spite of a half-hearted promise to himself to remain stoic. "I'm not sure I've achieved that just yet. I felt I had to…explore a few things on my own. You understand."
"Mm." Dumbledore stared at the fourteen-year-old, his bright blue eyes searching.
Tom felt the light but familiar pushing sensation just behind his eyes. No, he thought just before pushing back. Dumbledore's eyes widened briefly in surprise before a light smile touched his lips.
"Do you have any secrets, Tom?"
"Not nearly as many as you, Professor," he responded.
To Tom's surprise, this comment prompted a wider smile from his professor. Albus leaned forward. "I suppose we both have our reasons."
"Neither of which need to be stated, I'm sure."
An awkward silence settled between them. Their eyes met and locked across the desk. Tom pulled his eyes away quickly, letting his gaze drop to the paper that had been haphazardly dropped upon his entrance.
"Another wizard on trial for breaking the Statute of Secrecy?" Tom asked, scanning the front page of the Prophet. He frowned as he read through the beginning of the article. "Isn't that the third time this year?" Tom rolled his eyes and sat back, crossing his arms. "It would make more sense to do away with it altogether rather than punish us for what comes naturally."
"And what would that be, Tom?" Dumbledore drawled. His voice was tinged with quiet amusement. "What comes naturally?"
The boy looked up; his dark brows arched lightly in surprise. "Dominance, of course. We are superior to Muggles in every way and yet we live in fear of them knowing of our power." He reached forward and tapped the newspaper. "That is not the natural order of things."
Albus chuckled and leaned back in his chair. He folded his hands loosely over his abdomen. The deep purple robes crinkled. "And what, precisely, is the natural order in your mind?"
Tom smiled. Deep in his stomach he felt the familiar rise of excitement that accompanied a challenge. The twinkle in Dumbledore's eyes spurred him on. "What would be more natural is for those with the power to wield it. Those who are beneath us should live as such." He paused and rolled his eyes to the left as he considered. "That is not to say they should be our servants. Just that we should not fear them any more than they us."
His voice rose as he became excited. "Muggles starve and hurt each other when they should be able to live in an ordered society. We could give them that. We could show them so much more than their own meager existence. We could teach them how to run their lives, how to best function without magic. We could fix their governments, their prisons, their entire way of living. We could control everything," Tom said in a suddenly softer voice. "We could be their overlords. Protective but still powerful. They need us," he finished in a breathless rush.
It took several moments for his eyes to focus across the desk again, but when he did, Tom was startled. Albus Dumbledore was pale and shaking, his formerly relaxed frame now rigid with tension.
"Is something the matter?" Tom asked.
Dumbledore jerked, his hand going towards the top drawer of his desk. "No," he said after a moment. He drew his hand back and placed it on top of the desk. "I just…I no longer feel well. Perhaps we could talk at another time." Before Tom could respond, he turned his chair away from the desk and faced the window, losing himself in the view of the dark courtyard until the student left his office.
It has all become too much, Albus thought. He closed his eyes and felt a wave of dizziness overtake him. He took a deep breath to steady himself. No amount of self-delusion was going to erase what he'd just witnessed, the trick of sound and eye that had just brought him back more years than he cared to count, to the summer he'd spent with Gellert Grindelwald.
It was that faraway expression that had been the final piece of the disturbing glamour. Gellert had always lost himself to his emotions when he carried on about "a new world order" and "wizard supremacy." Albus imagined that he might have taken on that same glaze-eyed expression when listening to the young wizard speak—or going on about his own great ideas for changing the world.
They had both been too naïve to realize the improbability of their ideas, too idealistic to listen to anyone who would say otherwise and too disillusioned by their own fantasies to think of any of the consequences that many wise men before them had foreseen. When Albus had looked into the dark eyes, he'd seen in Tom what he'd once seen in the mirror—the foolish, grandiose plans of youth and a building ego that could grow to ignore all reason. Ultimately, that had been his weakness and resulted in the loss of two people he'd loved. Albus also saw the potential for great change in the determined young man. Dark tendencies aside, there was no doubt Tom Riddle, Jr. had the temerity to go after exactly what he wanted. It was all there in his mind, the potential to change the world, whatever the consequences.
Dumbledore's hand jerked towards the top drawer of his desk as it had before he'd ordered Tom out; his fingers glanced over the handle. With a small sigh, he pulled it open and removed a bottle of firewhiskey. He would have that drink, after all.