Men who are resolved to find a way for themselves will always find opportunities enough; and if they do not lie ready to their hand, they will make them.
“Arresto momentum, accio Burke! Finite!”
There was chaos in the hallway, and Albus Dumbledore was not surprised at all to hear Tom Riddle’s voice ringing clear amid the furor as he approached.
“Unimpedimento!” Tom cried, and Albus turned the corner just in time to see Prince’s robes turn brown as his bowels released—suddenly, painfully, and with force. The boy fell to his knees and wrapped his arms around his stomach as a puddle of waste grew around him. Elsewhere, Burke was crumpled on the floor beside the wall that Tom had clearly thrown him into. Only Yaxley remained on his feet, and he and Tom circled around each other as they each searched for an chink in the other’s defenses.
“Wands away!” Albus shouted, but neither took heed of him.
In quick succession Yaxley threw two Leg-Cramping Curses. Contrary to what Albus expected, Tom neither dodged nor threw up a shield, but took advantage of the opening which Yaxley himself had made. Yaxley’s curses caught him mid-incantation, and he staggered, but the intonation was unchanged and he completed the spell correctly: “Digitus macello!”
Yaxley’s fingers, all of them, fell to the floor, along with his wand, and his blood began to mix with Prince’s intestinal contents. With a quick jabbing motion, Albus disarmed Tom before the boy could do anything further, then petrified both Tom and Yaxley so that he could speak uninterrupted. Blood continued to drip from the stumps on Yaxley’s hands and Tom’s broken nose, and stain both their robes in a number of places.
Albus looked at the scene around him. Portraits had been blasted off the walls, a suit of armor half-melted, and a chair shattered into more pieces than he could count. Save for Prince’s occasional, shuddering gasps, there was silence in the hall as Albus collected his anger. “This behavior is beneath you, all of you, and none of you are too young to know it. When you fought, did you give any thought to your fellow students, who might have been caught in the crossfire, or even to the harm that you were doing to yourselves? One hundred and twenty points from Slytherin for each of you, and sixty points from Gryffindor. I expect more from sixth-years than I do from a third-year,” he explained in response to Prince’s groans, though those may have been from physical discomfort more than displeasure over the points deducted.
“This warrants detention as well,” Albus continued. “All of you report to the Hospital Wing at once, and then speak to your respective heads of house to learn the nature of your detentions.” Albus sighed. That meant another conversation with Tom, much as he would prefer that somebody else be able to deal with the boy. “Accio Yaxley’s fingers.” He returned mobility to both Tom and Yaxley, then returned the latter’s fingers to him. “Take care that you don’t drop these.” He thought for a moment. “And do make sure to wash them.”
It was almost an hour later when Tom knocked on his door. Not nearly long enough, Albus felt, but he had responsibilities to handle nonetheless.
“I imagine that you put on quite the show, Tom.” A part of Albus, that which was removed from his position as Head of Gryffindor House and interested in the matter only in a clinical way, was somewhat disappointed that Tom’s opponents likely didn’t appreciate what they had seen. It took skill to finite a charm on which others had been layered and not disturb the rest, but if Albus correctly understood what he had heard and seen, Tom had used the Slowing Charm to give himself time to dodge Burke’s tie, and consequently Burke , whom the Summoning Charm would have pulled toward his original position. That ought to have been prevented by an Anti-Theft Charm, which suggested quick disenchantment work or, more likely, preparation. “I would be interested to know what your purpose was in modifying the Finger-Removing Hex so that it would actually cut Yaxley’s fingers, and not just splinch his fingers away.”
The clinical part of him wanted to know how Tom had done it, too, but he wasn’t foolish enough to think that the boy would reveal his secrets. Albus would have to speculate. There could have been a silent addition to the spell, or perhaps a partial modification of the spell on the level of intent. He hadn’t been in a position to see all of Tom’s wandwork when the spell was cast, or see any other irregularities that might confirm one theory or another.
“The Onslaught Jinx,” Tom answered.
It took a moment, and then Albus saw it: Tom had intended to animate Yaxley’s own blood against him. Perhaps that had been the point to the Entrail-Evacuating Curse that he used on Prince, as well. Tom seemed to take delight in turning not only the environment, but his opponent’s own bodies, to his advantage.
“I didn’t start the fight,” Tom said, after the silence stretched on for a little too long.
“I’m sure that you didn’t,” replied Albus. “Other students always have started it, and yet you are nevertheless involved in an unusual number of fights for someone who doesn’t start any.”
“The p-poor orphan with no f-family is to blame, then?” Tom said in a quaver that didn’t quite reflect on his face, especially when not after it broke out into a smile.
Albus knew that Tom was no such thing. He had seen Tom in the hall, fighting three-on-one against a trio of sixth-years, and more to the point he could remember that Tom was never a cowed little boy. He had seen Tom in the orphanage, too, and when he set the boy’s cupboard alight with frozen fire there had not been fear there, but anger.
In hindsight, perhaps that should have been a clue as to how Tom would be Sorted and how he would comport himself there. Albus assumed that the boy had taken his lesson to heart and decided to reform, but instead he had received a different kind of revelation from his time in Gryffindor: theft and fighting were disapproved of, but if one really wanted to fight then people who stole were acceptable targets. In the end, he had apparently learned, people would cheer the harm that you did if only it was in the name of protecting others. Villains were sent to Azkaban, while heroes got the Order of Merlin.
“I saw young Ignatius Prewett a few minutes before I arrived,” said Albus. “A little bruised, and running quite quickly, but otherwise happy and none the worse for wear. I suspect that, if I were to ask, I would find that Yaxley and his friends had seen, and chosen to confront, only Ignatius, and that your appearance on the scene was as inexplicable as it was sudden.” Albus suspected invisibility of some sort, but he had no more answers there than on the question of Tom’s modification to the finger-removing hex.
Albus gave a heavy sigh. “I do not expect you to stop simply because I ask you to, but the situation is escalating. How long shall it be, Tom, until you are trying to fight every seventh-year in Ravenclaw, or all of Hufflepuff?”
“If you are unaware of how ferociously a badger can fight,” replied Albus, “then I think that it is in the best interests of this school and any who wish to see it standing next year, that I not enlighten you further.”
“If it would really be that narrow of a fight, sir, then I think that I would have quite a lot to learn from the experience. Perhaps I should look into it after all.”
“You have also hurt your opponents quite severely, and taken no end of injuries yourself,” Albus pointed out.
“I have always thought that wizards were wound too tight about bodily injury, sir. There are blood replenishment potions for that sort of thing, and Skele-Gro and Scaradicate. So long as the damage is not inflicted by a spell that might make it resistant to magical healing, there are really few limits to what can be undone.” Such callousness, from one so young. On the other hand… Albus could remember how injured Tom himself had been, and how he hardly flinched at Yaxley’s curses. That, too, was disturbing.
“Is that why you let Yaxley hit you? That must have hurt. Torn muscles, at least, with two of those curses. I don’t think that he expected you to let them through.”
“I wanted to make an opportunity to strike,” Tom said. He paused, evidently considering what to say next, then set his wand on the desk between them. “Thirteen and a half inches, yew, phoenix feather core. The Sorting Hat thought that was interesting,” he said, and Albus had to admit to himself that he did as well. Yew wands were notoriously picky, and those with a phoenix feather core were the same.
“You know that any conversations with the Sorting Hat are kept in the strictest of confidences,” said Albus, “and you do not need to disclose to me anything which you discussed.”
Tom nodded. “But I want to, sir. I think that you will understand me a little better if I do so. See, the Sorting Hat showed something to me which I didn’t like. It showed me a weakness that I had, and I chose to go to your house so that I could be purged of it. I remember very well what it told me before I went to my table: ‘Go to the phoenix; consider his ways and be wise,’” Tom said, and Albus spared a quick glare at Fawkes, sleeping in the corner of the office, as if this had all somehow been his fault.
“I must confess that I do not understand.”
“Phoenixes live forever, Professor, but they do so by killing themselves. Self-immolation, sir, that’s the answer. I took Yaxley’s curses because I’m not afraid of pain. I’m not afraid of dying. I don’t want to die, of course, but I’m not—” Tom paused for a moment, almost too quick for Albus to catch it. “I don’t want to be afraid of anything.”
It was now Albus’ turn to pause and reflect on his next words. “Tom, have you been hurting yourself?” He spoke slowly, with hesitation, half-afraid that Tom might shut him out if he said the wrong words.
But it seemed that Albus’ worries were unfounded, or rather that his worries should have been of a different nature, for Tom answered readily, too readily and agreeably for Albus’ comfort. “Of course, sir. And I’ve gotten some of the other students to hex me, since it can sometimes be hard to cast combat spells on yourself. A pair of Leg-Cramping Curses are nothing.”
Albus sat back in his chair and resisted the urge to rest his face in his hands. This was not the time for him to withdraw into his own concerns. Before anything else, Tom was his student, and it was evident in a way that should have been clear to him many years ago, in a muggle orphanage, that Tom was not whole.
Tom had great potential, and was harnessing it in a way that threatened to severely hurt not just others but the boy himself. Even with safety margins, it was only a matter of time before something terrible occurred, and for the first time Albus feared that the one who would come off the worst for it was Tom, who might push himself too far in trying to follow the advice of a hat (not for the first time, Albus cursed it in his thoughts, for while the Sorting Hat had probably had a very good point to make, it was all too fond of giving its wisdom in a form too cryptic for most eleven-year-olds to parse). Nor did Tom’s summer dwelling afford him the healthiest environment, though Albus had previously resigned himself to the idea that nothing could be done about that.
After considering it all, however, Albus thought he had a solution that might wallop two chasers with the same bludger, a way to keep him occupied in the summer, to channel the energies that were getting him into trouble here at school, and most of all to teach him care and responsibility and restraint. A moment passed, and Albus broke the silence that had settled in his office. “Perhaps there is a solution to this that does not involve continued visits to my office until either you or another student sustains irreparable harm. Are you familiar with Filius Flitwick?”
A flicker of something passed over Riddle’s face. Surprise? Recognition? Anticipation, or perhaps confusion? “The duelist?”
Albus nodded. “The very same. I happen to know him quite well, and I think that I might be able to arrange for you to apprentice with him over the summer. You would have to make yourself useful and be attentive to what he required of you, but it would be a very good opportunity to learn not just the art but the code of dueling, and for someone of your talent I don’t think it would be hard to convince him to take you on. At least for this summer. I’ll leave it to you to convince him to continue the arrangement through successive years. And of course this would be contingent on your respectful behavior here at Hogwarts. Still, though,” Albus said, now smiling for the first time in hours, “what do you think of that?”
“I’d like that very much, sir.”