Harry had been taken to the hospital wing. He was in deep shock, but the boy would be all right.
But someone else wouldn’t.
Albus Dumbledore turned to the man who lay on the floor. He was clearly in considerable agony, apparently too great even to speak: he made only small whimpering noises, mingled with his gasps for air…too shallow, too quick. His eyes were wide and frightened, but burnt with rage too. His skin was nearly unrecognizable as skin—it was covered in what looked like fourth-degree burns.
Madame Pomfrey was in a state of some distress. She didn’t ask any questions, at least, not yet—she had gone straight to Harry’s aide, and was now attempting to do the same for Quirrell, muttering spells and carefully doing her best to apply a powerful salve to his burns—unaware of what had caused them, of course.
“Poppy, I have just realized I left a very important scroll in my office,” Albus said. “Could you kindly go and fetch it for me?”
Madame Pomfrey’s head jerked up, and she stared sharply at him. “With all due respect, Headmaster, this man requires immediate medical attention—”
Albus spoke over her in a tranquil, unruffled tone. “The cupboard in the corner; third shelf down. Thank you so much.”
Seeing it was pointless to argue, Madame Pomfrey hurried out, skirts rustling, shoes clicking on the flagstones. Albus returned his gaze to Quirrell. He sighed, deeply, and was silent for a long moment, collecting himself, weighing his words, before speaking.
“She’s a brilliant healer; under different circumstances, she would have seen what I can so clearly—what you know, already, though you won’t accept it just yet.” Quirrell glared at him, his eyes filled with hatred and confusion. “She hasn’t realized that by the time she returns, you will be dead.”
Dumbledore’s tone was not angry, nor was it sad. He spoke as simply as one stating that the sky was a bit cloudy. He watched the hatred drain from Quirrell’s eyes as he processed the fact, leaving behind only terror. He watched him struggle to move, and cry out in wordless animalistic pain from the effort.
“It’s no use. No medicine or magic can save you.” He paused, briefly. “It will be best for you, I think, if you relax.” Albus said all this lightly, in a quiet, steady manner.
Quirrell attempted to move again, his pale blue eyes screaming, but to no avail. Albus sighed again.
“I have no love for you, Quirinus. You have lost any pity I might have had in your attack on an innocent child.” Albus looked at him steadily. “But I will remain with you until the end of it. No one should leave this world alone.” He sat down, quietly, next to the dying man, mindful of the burns that covered the other’s body.
For what seemed like too long they remained thus in relative silence, the only sound Quirrell’s hoarse gasps, echoing in the stone chamber. The burnt man was almost unrecognizable, his flesh blackened and blistered and in places simply gone. His eyes, that piercing light blue, were really the only identifiable feature. Those eyes were horribly aware—it seemed nearly cruel, Dumbledore mused. It might be kinder if he were to become delusional from the pain or simply pass out before things were over. He could, of course, always cause the poor man to sleep with a very simple charm, allowing him to slip away more easily. Yet Albus found it felt wrong, that idea. He genuinely didn’t want Quirrell to suffer—no matter what his actions had been—but something told him that Quirrell ought to remain awake until the end.
After a few more endless moments, Quirrell began to pant, straining to do something. Albus watched him keenly, curiously. Finally, with much effort, Quirrell grasped Dumbledore’s wrist in what remained of his hand.
Suddenly, Dumbledore’s mind was filled with an image that he had never seen. It was Hogwarts, and the grounds were bright and green beneath a calm sunny sky. A young pale boy, a first-year, with a shock of dark hair sat under a tree nervously, hugging a book to his chest.
After a moment, Albus understood. Legilimency was not a skill that he’d known Quirrell to have—of course, Quirinus had always been undisputedly clever, despite his applications of his talents; but it was more likely that this was some remnant of Voldemort’s powers remaining in the man. The touch amplified the spell, which would no doubt otherwise not be strong enough, in Quirrell’s weakened state.
This was a dying message.
Albus watched quietly as Quirrell’s memories unfolded before him. In them, the pale boy grew into a slim young man, timid and quiet, who always had his face buried in a book. He saw young Quirinus teased and excluded for his slender build, his stammer—which had been real, in his youth; no wonder it had been so easy for him to add it to his act—his intellect, and his hobby of pressing wildflowers. His delicate mannerisms caused many of his male peers to refer to him by various female names. He seemed unwilling to speak up, either to defend himself or to draw the teachers’ attention to his plight. Those of his classmates who did not openly mock him were indifferent at best. The boy had few real friends, if any, and with each passing year, withdrew further and further into himself and his studies, impressing his teachers with his growing magical skills but further alienating himself from his peers. As the years passed, the moments of crying silently in the Ravenclaw dormitories at night became less, replaced by times when Quirinus would read under the covers by wandlight, books about foreign lands and the fantastic beasts that lived there. The young man’s pale blue eyes shone as he dreamed of going to every place in his books, becoming a world-famous traveler, and discovering amazing things—discoveries that would change the magical world, and bring him fame and riches. No one could ever make fun of him then. And he’d be remembered in the history books, his name living in the hearts of wizards long after he was gone. No one would ever ignore him again.
Dumbledore watched as Quirrell graduated top of his class, with high honours and no friends. As he became the youngest Hogwarts teacher in decades, teaching Muggle Studies to students who tuned him out half the time, and treated him with disrespect and ridicule. Though by this time he’d trained himself out of the stutter, with much time and effort, he remained a delicate-looking man who found it nearly impossible to relate to others. His students at best paid a bored sort of half-attention, and at worst enchanted small objects to fly at him when his back was turned.
And then Dumbledore saw himself, offering Quirrell the position of Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher. Saw Quirrell accepting it. But then things got confused, as if the memories were being fast-forwarded through—Albus realized that Quirrell was ashamed of what came next. Flashes of memory came through the chaos: Quirrell pouring over ancient forbidden texts late at night, maps, accounts from the Death Eater Trials…a dark, dank forest…and then the horror, the pain, but the POWER, oh yes, the POWER of having Voldemort attached to his soul.
But then that feeling changed...how helpless he felt then, how he could never be alone, always watched like an animal in a glass cage—even in his own thoughts. How he struggled to be free and failed. The unicorn blood, shining silver in the darkness of the trees. The feeling of utter loss, that something essential to his humanity had left him forever the moment the substance touched his lips. How in the end he had simply given up, given in and parroted Voldemort’s words to him of good and evil, strength and weakness…even begun to believe in them. And finally, Dumbledore saw Quirrell attempt to kill Harry, and his skin burn and blister and disintegrate at the touch of the boy’s skin.
And then, something else. A wordless plea…something not easy to sum up. Essentially, that Quirrell had spent his entire life wanting to be noticed. Wanting people to pay attention to him. Wanting to be remembered forever. But now…now he would be remembered…as the man who had aided the return of the wizarding world’s greatest terror. A creature that wasn’t even human enough anymore to care that he now lay dying while it fled, even though he’d damned himself for it. Now…now all he wanted was to be forgotten.
Albus watched Quirrell’s eyes pleading him silently, yet speaking louder than his voice could have, had he had the ability to use it. After a moment, Albus nodded. “I’ll see what I can do.”
Quirrell looked relieved, and if this had been any decent narrative, Dumbledore thought to himself, he would have died then, in that moment of relative peace. But this was reality, and the moment passed. Quirrell released Dumbledore’s hand, but lived on for several more minutes, though it felt like hours to the bearded wizard sitting beside him. Finally, with one last shuddering breath, whatever had remained of Quirrell after Voldemort’s escape was gone. That awful alertness left his eyes, leaving them staring blankly…eyes that had been still confused and terrified, up until the very end.
Dumbledore looked at the now-corpse mildly and addressed it thoughtfully. “I find, Quirinus, that I cannot wish you joy...I cannot bring myself to do that, not after all you’ve done. But I wish you rest.” He patted the blackened, dead hand, and slowly stood up, his joints creaking slightly…his years were catching up with him. Then he went to go find Madame Pomfrey, who was still looking for the scroll, which had been, of course, completely nonexistent.
Over the next few years, Dumbledore found that Quirrell’s last request was an easy one to honour. He never lied about Quirrell’s role in the return of Voldemort, but he downplayed it as much as possible. Occasionally he’d be forced to do a few simple spells, spells that, while not removing Quirrell from people’s memories, simply made him seem less important. As most of the wizarding world was still refusing to believe that He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named had returned, it was really quite simple. Quirrell was not utterly forgotten, but at the same time, faded easily into the background.
Why, though, why honour this request at all? Dumbledore sometimes wondered this, idly. What he wanted to believe was that he was doing it because it was the right thing to do; it had been the man’s final wish, after all. But when Albus was truly honest with himself, he found only one answer: that he had seen himself, as a younger man, in the background of Quirrell’s memories. That he hadn’t seen how the boy was treated. That he hadn’t acted. That maybe if he had…that maybe things would not have gone so horribly wrong.
Guilt. That was the real reason. Responsibility. Tom Riddle had been his responsibility, and so had Quirinus Quirrell, and he’d failed them both.
He could not fail again. Not with this boy. Not with Harry Potter.
Albus swore he would not fail this time.