It was a conversation Albus had not expected to have—at least, not so soon—but he had an answer ready all the same.
"How old are you?" Tom asked.
"Old enough to know what I'm doing and young enough to still do it," Dumbledore responded.
It was his customary response to every boy who asked and usually resulted in a giggle from whomever he intended to hear it. Tom, of course, reacted differently. A corner of his mouth turned up briefly before he resumed frowning. His eyes studied the face just above his as if he could read Dumbledore's mind as easily as the Transfiguration professor had been able to read his in years past. As weak as Albus sometimes felt in his presence, he wouldn't be shocked if that were the case.
"What do you want from me?" Tom asked, breaking the long silence.
"Whatever you're willing to give," Albus said after a minute. He knew asking for too much was in the realm of wishful thinking. Tom wasn't given to fantastic thoughts and actions and neither was he. Yet another thing they had in common. And another reason he should've known better than to let himself get this far involved. Hadn't that mess with Gellert resulted in enough heartbreak and disappointment?
That was where this was headed, wasn't it? Heartbreak. An ugly word that rarely passed into the professor's life in a real sense, but merely interfered with his occasional plans to experience some of life's simpler pleasures. But nothing about Tom Riddle, Jr. had ever been simple. He'd be a fool to pretend getting further involved would be any different. Not that that fact would stop either of them, especially now that he'd opened the door. A delicious sort of temptation had always lurked beneath the surface, just waiting for one of them to break the tension with one carefully measured step. The fragile tension had been broken by Dumbledore's softly spoken comment and the unasked question that lay behind it. What remained was to see how far Tom and Albus could go before they became unrecognizable to themselves.
With Gellert, it had taken nothing more than the request that he abandon his family and his brief consideration of the idea before Albus realized he was getting in way over his head. That hadn't ended well by a long stretch. With Tom, Albus wished to show a damaged boy that he didn't have to live his life in the kind of darkness that Gellert had freely embraced. He could have the admiration his ego desired and the passionate control his heart and mind sought without the destruction those two warring ideas could bring about.
Albus could give him that. As much as possible without giving all of himself as well. One tragic loss was enough blood on his hands. Besides that, his heart wasn't exactly available to be freely given, was it? Even after all this time. Tom didn't have to know that. He only had to know he had a choice. And it was possible this choice would define him as Albus's choice to stay with his family had him. Hopefully, with far better results.
There could be no confessions, no declarations of anything. A confession would constitute weakness. And what would be the point? Tom could not recognize love as anything more than a tool to manipulate and Albus...well, he'd had enough of that type of frivolity and the pain that resulted. They would take this step, ignoring all that was wrong about it—their age difference, Albus's position at the school, the very real possibility that Tom was damaged in ways this would only strengthen instead of heal. They would take what they could from each other and hope what was left behind could survive.
Tom stared at Albus for a long while; his dark eyes showed the smallest hint of vulnerability before even that was pushed back to hide behind the years of pain and anger he wielded like a shield. The barest smile tilted his lips. "What I'm willing to give," Tom whispered. He stepped closer. Almost close enough to be touched.
Albus stopped breathing. No, he would not confess his feelings. He could never show himself to be the latest person to fall completely under Tom's spell. For now he had the boy's respect. Maybe even the closest Tom himself could feel to that elusive emotion. He would do nothing to jeopardize that. Even if it meant Tom would never hear those three words from anyone.