Disclaimer: Don't claim ownership of the great T. M. Riddle nor of the equally great Albus Dumbledore. J.K. Rowling deserves credit for them; they're her very own two strokes of genius.

Author's note: firstly, this is not your traditional T. M. Riddle, you've been warned. He's acting very strangely here, but I reckon it's ok, he's in a stressful situation. Somewhat the same for Dumbledore. Generally, if you take the HP books at surface value, you'll hate this.

Secondly, *this* happily indicates emphasis.

Here's to the Darkness

It was late at night when he made the decision, and later yet when he was able to move again. And he went up the Slytherin Tower to the cozy private room the status of Head Boy earned him, and sat down on the bed and stared into space for a long, lonely time. He got up, brushed the long black hair out of his eyes, and walked to the bathroom to see if he could still look himself in the mirror.

He marched in and splashed cool water on his face, reassuring and clearing. It seemed to drive the fog back a little bit, and beneath it, he found nothing but hard resolve. He combed his hair a bit, changed his clothes, tried to tidy up and be a bit more proper and ordered. He stood before the sink and looked up into a sharp face framed by jet-black hair flowing down past his shoulders, impish nose, stringy muscles that were strange on a wizard, and eyes darker than death or night. All the same, there wasn't much of a change at all. He smashed the mirror.

Getting out, collapsing on an armchair before the nice flickering fire, Tom Marvolo Riddle leaned back, put his legs up on a table and spent the next few hours seeking and finding forgetfulness in alcohol. Between bottles - and there were many bottles, and many moments in between - he stood up and studied his own reflection in the shards, awaiting a change.

Surely, something ought to have happened. Not every day does a young wizard turn sixteen; not every day does he make such a crucial decision without so much as blinking. He didn't know what he was looking to find in his face. Confidence, perhaps, approval?

Surely, things couldn't have been right. He was still able to look himself in the eye, couldn't he? Haven't they told him he wouldn't?

Mind clouded and reason all but gone, Tom sobbed once and flung a bottle halfway across the room to be shattered on a wall. Where was the lie?

Just as he was washing his tear-streaked face, the door opened, startling him. However, he didn't even manage to produce his wand when another wizard walked into the room. He was older than Tom to be sure, by fifty years or more, but still had youthful strength in him. The newcomer cast a long, knowing glance around the mess that was the room, and then, lifting his head and shaking back his mane of auburn hair, he cleared his throat and waited.

Tom stumbled out of the bathroom, none too stable on his feet. Humiliating, he thought hazily, absurd, to be seen like this, but what did it matter anymore? Who's to say what he really was like, what things really were like, how others saw him?

He collapsed on the bed; the older man sat by the table, nailing him down with sparkling blue eyes.

"Hello, Albus," Tom said wearily, smiling a twisted, heavily drunken smile.

"Tom," the man acknowledged, but said no more. He looked simple, elegant and commanding when sitting there, and Tom cursed silently. Why was his teacher pretending so obviously?

"Y'come to tell me the errors of my way, eh?" he struggled to keep at least his voice was wavering, blinked and tried to pull himself together. He could clear his head in an instant, a charm of the simplest sort, but it seemed truer this way, no masks. He would not go down with a mask. Always in life, never in death.

Albus Dumbledore regarded him with pity of a sort. "It doesn't have to be like this, Tom. Talk to me, man to man. This will go better if you don't hide."

At that, Tom gave a short, shrill laughter than ended in coughing and sputtering. There was a bitter taste in his mouth and his throat felt sore and dry. "Hide? B-but I'm not hiding right now, is when I'm not hidin'. Can't hide with m'head all... screwed up the way it is..."

"Tom, sober up, please. You can be still be real with me, you know that."

"No!" Tom leaped to his feet, suddenly energized. He wobbled and fell against the wall, but his eyes burned as he shouted, and he didn't look absurd, not at all. He looked dangerous. "This is the only way! When I'm thinking c-clearly I c-can't stop, I'm just b-being *not me* because that's *who I am*. I'm not hiding *anything* right now but that's just because I *can't*, is that alright? That alright, if I stay this way because otherwise I... I..."

He broke down, sat and buried his face in his hands.

"Very well," he heard Dumbledore's voice from somewhere farther, not quite in the room but somewhere both within and without, but maybe it was just his muddy mind playing tricks again. "If this is how you want it. As long as we talk, and you talk freely."

Tom peeked out at the older wizard from beneath one hand, looking more childlike than Dumbledore could remember him looking from day one. He leaned back and hesitantly began fidgeting, occasionally glancing back to the bottles lined on the table.

"You know... what I'm going to do, don't you?" he whispered.

Dumbledore nodded gravely, but gave no other response.

Tom's shoulders slumped, he look down at his hands. "And you're going to stop me, no matter what's it going to take."

"I'd hardly say that, my young friend," came the low, calculated response.

"N-no," he stuttered now, hands clutching into fists. He banged on the mattress in quiet, withdrawn anger. "You're supposed to try to stop me. It's the way it w-works, there's no point to it otherwise, there's no point to a-anything."

Dumbledore only nodded once more. Tom felt the anger surge, welling up in his throat and eyes. It came in burning waves whenever something else that has always been true was turning out to be a lie.

"You're supposed to try to stop me!!" He shouted, kicking and punching the walls like a little boy. "You're supposed to tell me it's wrong and make me not do it! Why won't you make me not do it? Can't you see I can't stop myself alone??"

"Tom, stop it, the walls didn't do anything wrong, you'll hurt yourself," was all Dumbledore said, with sternness, but with underlining care. Tom's head shot up, he was gasping for air and his palms were bloodied.

"*Hurt myself*?" he screamed. "What do you *care*? I might as well k-kill myself! I'm going to be a dark wizard, you know I am, I know I am, who are we fooling here trying to act normal? I made my decision! I made it tonight! I'm going to be the g-greatest dark wizard t-that ever l-lived, and I l-like it t-too, and n-no one would make me s-stop!!"

Minutes ticked away in the room, nearly thirty of them passed before he could breath well enough again to talk more. The tears were beginning to run dry and the sobs came less frequent and painful. Maybe this was what he needed, maybe this would make things right. Maybe if he cried, and regretted, and wanted to be forgiven, everything would be made well again. Taking rich, laboring breaths, his head slowly cleared and he angrily swept at his face, moved away his hair and pulled at his nose and tried to feel normal if he couldn't look it. What else could he possibly do?

He waited, waited for the realization, for his conscience to wake up, for his mind to intervene, for something, any sort of clearing, any sort of doubt. Anything at all.

Looking up, he glanced about the room.

Dumbledore had not moved from his seat throughout the long ordeal, gazing at him impassionately, his blue eyes cool. His eyes narrowed slightly. Tom sucked in a breath. Was this it, then? Answers?

"Better now, I might assume?" the older wizard asked in a detached way. Tom blinked. Better, really. Somewhere in the mix of alcohol, tears and rage, he expected a revelation. When it didn't come, everything was so much simpler; everything was so much more real.

"You aren't going to do anything, are you?" he whispered. "Not a word, not a fight, not anger, not help... nothing, right? Just... leave me to it, right? Because it... isn't like that, right? It doesn't work like that..."

Dumbledore nodded. A smile crept onto Tom's lips suddenly; he looked around and stretched, falling back on the bed. He laughed shortly at nothing at all.

"You could have just told me," he said in unconcealed amusement.

"Would you have believed me?" The older wizard asked. Tom resisted the urge for a childish pout. Something still wasn't right in the scene; something was amiss, something that he didn't take out of fantasies or ideals, something real.

"Don't suppose so," he said with a shrug, pulling his legs to his chest and glancing around pensively. "I'd have thought you were worse than me. Takes one to know one, but it's all down to that. Long as you believe there's good and evil, there's nothing but what I had, pain, and tears, and hatred."

That seemed to have sparked some life in the other man; he stood and walked over to sit besides Tom. There was still no emotion in his expression, but he was serious now, not merely sitting, waiting for the boy to make his own realizations. There was no further need for that.

"You are, of course, taking the easy path - though I won't say if it's true or not," Tom nodded - it was clear enough. Hastily Dumbledore continued. "But if that is who you are, then you may loath yourself all you like, Tom, but there won't be anyone there to make you stop. They're only there to get rid of you once you're started."

Tom couldn't help but laugh. "You know who you're talking to."

"I do, which is why it's so much more important."

"So that's it? That's your advice as friend and teacher? To stop even trying to be a good person because it's pointless?"

"I won't say it's pointless, but I'll say it's a choice you have," he leaned closer, looking deep into Tom's dark, dead eyes. "There are no fantasy heroes, Tom, and there are no fantasy villains. No one will drag you back from the abyss; no one will make you see how wrong you've been. You won't weep at night, you won't regret, you won't feel, you will be able to look yourself in the mirror. If that is where you want to go, all these aren't reasons not to."

Ten seconds, Tom averted his gaze.

"But not everyone does it," he said quietly, with genuine sadness. "There must be a reason... a reason they all see. But I'm just me, and I don't want to hurt anymore..." his eyes snapped back up; he will bare the older man's gaze a while more, he could do no less. "But why this? Why tell me this? You know what's going to happen now, who I'm going to be, what I'm going to do. Wouldn't it have been much better to lie to me? Wouldn't it?"

In the silence that fell, Tom thought he'd ought to have held onto one shred of hope that all he heard was a cruel lie.

Finally, Dumbledore spoke in a heavy tone.

"Tom my boy, as you've experienced firsthand, the choice is never easy. But it's made much more easy when all we see is one side, when nothing reminds us of what that other choice, the one we do not speak of, has in store. It may be too late for you, but it's not too late for them. And better a hundred dead men than a dozen living Voldemorts."

A deep shiver of pleasure ran down Tom's spine at the name.

It was late at night, and the decision was made. Great things will happen tomorrow, in the impotent sunlight. But tonight, he was just himself, Tom Riddle, sixteen years old boy, and he didn't hurt anymore, and nothing - not them, not any of them, but not *him*, and that's what mattered - could ever hurt him again.

He leaped from the bed and took one of the remaining bottles, swung its content into two goblets and handed one to Dumbledore with devious merriment and final judgement. He saw his face reflected in the red liquid, and sought no change in it, never again.

"The darkness, then," he said dreamily. "If there is any such thing at all as light, anyway." Raising his hand, he relaxed completely. This was him, and this was fine. "Here's to the darkness, then, Albus."

"Here's to the darkness, Tom."