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Give Up This Fight by Girldetective85

Format: Novel
Chapters: 17
Word Count: 77,288

Rating: 15+
Warnings: Mild Language, Mild Violence, Scenes of a Sexual Nature, Substance Use or Abuse, Sensitive Topic/Issue/Theme

Genres: Drama, Romance, Angst
Characters: Voldemort, OC, OtherCanon
Pairings: Other Pairing

First Published: 08/13/2007
Last Chapter: 10/19/2008
Last Updated: 08/23/2009


2008 Dobby Winner: Best Novel, Best Romance, Best Minor Character || Finalist: Most Addicting Story

It is the summer of 1925 in the sleepy village of Little Hangleton, where lives intertwine and stories are rewritten. There is the handsome Tom Riddle, restless despite his wealth and privilege; Bethe Lawney, a gifted young woman with a mysterious past; and Merope Gaunt, destined to become the mother of the most powerful dark wizard in history...

Chapter 1: Inside Looking Out
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Author's Notes: This is my very first Harry Potter fanfic! I have always sympathized with the character of Merope and wondered about her background.

I own the plot, original characters, banner, and all chapter images throughout the story. Everything else is owned by J.K. Rowling. Please be aware that I have blended in my own original ideas with canon information and I'll be happy to discuss anything in a review or a PM.

This first chapter is dedicated to Glow, who helped it get through validation and offered advice and encouragement! Thank you!

Chapter One: Inside Looking Out
by Girldetective85

"She stood framed in the doorway, tall, mystic, silent,
with strange, wistful face and deep soul shining in her dark questioning eyes."

- Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

The girl crouched beside the window, arms folded on the sill, half hidden by the dusty, ragged cloth that served as a curtain. It was a beautiful day, the kind of delicious summer afternoon that lured young and old alike out to the grassy meadows and fields. The sky was as cool and blue as deep water and even the smelly, trash-strewn yard, dappled by sunlight through the trees, seemed cheerful on a day like this. However, the girl by the window hardly seemed to notice anything. Her dark brown eyes, which were slightly crooked so that they appeared to gaze in two directions, were fixed on the dirt path that led past the cottage. She seemed to be waiting for something, or someone.

Just then a bright laugh rang through the still air and the girl stiffened, instantly alert. Quickly she stood up and hid in the cobwebby curtain, impatiently brushing aside a spider. Two people on horseback were leisurely making their way along the path, talking and laughing. As they came closer, she could hear snippets of their conversation.

"Don't be ridiculous!" a girl was saying incredulously, giggling. "You can't expect me to believe a story like that, Tom."

"I'm not lying to you!" answered the merry voice of a young man. "Ask anyone! I beat that slimy Havering on his fancy white stallion he won't shut up about, on a donkey. My God, Cecilia, you should have seen his face!" They both burst into laughter.

Still hidden inside the curtain, she peered out of the window cautiously, watching as they slowly approached the house. The girl called Cecilia perched daintily astride a grey mare, the skirt of her dark blue dress cascading down the horse's flank. Shining curls of hair peeped out from underneath her matching dark blue hat as she turned to the man on the chestnut horse beside her.

"You and your feud with John Havering," she said, her voice filled with affection. "When will it end?"

He turned to grin at her and his strikingly handsome face was clearly visible to the girl secretly watching. "When he stops being a git, I suppose," he answered carelessly, "or when he finally realizes that the beautiful Miss Cecilia Ingram belongs with me."

"Oh, Tom," Cecilia said, her pretty laugh tinkling like a bell. The girl watching from the window felt a powerful surge of hatred, which didn't subside when Tom reached for his companion's hand and kissed it gently.

"ME-RO-PEEEE!" The loud, abrasive voice broke through the air like a gunshot. "GET DOWN HERE AT ONCE!"

She jumped guiltily and whirled away from the window, tangled in the curtains. Her apron had snagged on a broken nail in the wall and she pulled at it frantically, desperate to get away. It was too late however, for one glance outside told her that the two riders had heard the loud voice and had noticed the flailing curtain in the attic of the house. "Damn it!" she whispered, as Tom and Cecilia gazed curiously up at her window.

"MEROPE! I TOLD YOU TO GET DOWN HERE!" She finally managed to free herself and moved away, but not before she heard Tom say in a disgusted voice, "That filthy peasant, always bickering with his ugly lazy-eyed daughter -"

A sob rose in her throat but she buried it sternly. There'll be enough time for that later, she told herself, and half fell down the rickety ladder to face her irate father.

"What the bloody hell were you doing up there?" he demanded.

"N-nothing, I was just-"

"You lazy cow! Sitting around, doing nothing, when your brother and I are starving down here! Nothing, indeed!" He jabbed a finger in the direction of the stove. "No woman will live under my roof without earning her keep!"

Shaking, Merope clutched a chipped pot to her chest. I will not cry, she thought fiercely. I will not cry.

"Stupid, useless, and lazy, just like your mother was." He spat in her direction, adding even more grime to the grubby dirt floor. "Small wonder the mighty house of Gaunt has come to this, with rubbish like you littering the family tree."

Merope's older brother, Morfin, who was sprawled in the opposite corner, cackled dryly at his father's wit. "Rubbish," he echoed, twisting the limp body of a dead garter snake in his hands.

Slowly Merope turned to the cracked stove and placed the pot on it. Pulling her wand out, she tapped it. "A-aquabullio," she whispered. Nothing happened. "Aquabullio," she repeated, and again nothing happened. Thankfully her father had gone to sit by his son and neither of them noticed her struggle. On the third try, boiling water finally appeared in the pot to her immense relief.

As she chopped up some moldy carrots and potatoes, she found her mind wandering back to Tom. For the thousandth time she wondered what it felt like to be beautiful, graceful, and sought after by him. She imagined being Cecilia, riding beside Tom with the breeze in her hair, smiling confidently as she teased him. They would spend the day riding all over Little Hangleton, picking flowers, rowing on the pond, and picnicking on the hillside before returning to his fancy manor house. His parents would invite her in for tea, and Mrs. Riddle would kiss her cheek and call her a pretty darling. Then she and Tom would walk out into the rose garden, arms linked, and he would kiss her in the white gazebo...


Merope gasped and dropped the carrot she was holding. The water in the pot was boiling furiously and splashing over the stove onto the floor. In her attempt to stop it, she got several nasty burns to the great delight of her father and brother, who laughed uproariously. She threw the vegetables she had chopped into the pot. "There!" she cried. "There's your meal!" Without waiting to hear more insults, she threw open the front door and rushed out, running blindly through the woods. Tears, so familiar to her dirt-streaked face, began to flow fast. She threw herself on the ground underneath a tree, sobbing.

"Mother," she whimpered. "Oh Mother. Why did you leave me here? How could you abandon me to a life of this?" She wiped her face with the back of a filthy hand. "I hate him! I hate both of them!" Angrily she grabbed the heavy gold locket around her neck and flung it away from her. As soon as she had done so, she quaked in fear at what her father might do if she ever lost it and hurried to retrieve it.

The locket lay on a pile of dead leaves, glinting in the sun, the carved 'S' looking like a miniature snake. The tiny emerald that served as the snake's eye seemed to glow reprovingly at her. "I'm sorry," she whispered, "I didn't mean it."

For fifteen years, since the day that her mother packed up and left them, the necklace had almost been a source of comfort to Merope. It felt friendly and reassuring around her neck and sometimes, when she felt she couldn't possibly go on any longer, it grew warm against her chest and the snake's emerald eye would shimmer. It certainly liked her better than either her father or her brother, choosing to strangle them whenever they tried to put it on. The last time Marvolo tried to adorn his son with their ancestor's precious locket, it had taken him almost twenty minutes to pry it off Morfin's sweaty neck. "Here, it's yours then," he had told his daughter, flinty eyes gleaming with malice as he thrust the necklace at her. "Put it on." Half terrified for her life, Merope had obeyed and then was punished when the necklace did her no harm.

Now she slipped it back over her head and gazed at it. "I need help," she said, staring at the emerald-eyed snake. "I don't want to live here anymore. I don't want to be scolded and ridiculed and insulted."

The emerald seemed to wink in the sunlight. So go, then.

"Easy for you to say," Merope retorted. "I have no money, no other clothing, no means of getting far enough away so that Father couldn't find me."

You have your wand.

"I'm practically a Squib, you know that!"

The snake's eye glinted dangerously. You are the heir of the great Slytherin. A Squib you certainly are not.

She wiped her face. "I'm as good as," she mumbled. "Maybe it's just like Father said, maybe I am useless and good for nothing. No one loves me and no one ever will. Least of all Tom Riddle." She thought despairingly of his handsome face and its fine features, of the way his wavy dark hair fell casually into his eyes. She thought of the well-cut clothes he wore and of the glossy chestnut stallion he rode, expensive-looking even from a distance. "It's bloody nonsense to even imagine he would ever be with me," she declared bitterly. "An ugly, lazy-eyed witch with the son of the Squire. Ha!"

A crackle of dry leaves interrupted her speech and she looked up in horror. Morfin was standing not ten feet from her, his trollish face curved into a ghastly smile.

"What do you want?" Merope croaked. "How long have you been there?"

He was still holding his dead snake in one hand. "Not long," he sneered. "Father sent me to get you. I expect he'll want a little word with you, after your running away like that."

"I thought he would," she answered miserably, rising to her feet. She looked directly at him. His eyes, crooked and dark brown like hers, certainly looked shifty. "Did you hear what I was saying earlier?"

"Nay. But I'm sure it's something Father would dearly love to hear, isn't it?" Morfin cackled and turned, walking back to the cottage.

His sister followed him, heart pounding. "Are you sure?" she persisted.

Without answering, he led her back to the cottage and opened the door. Merope followed him inside, bracing herself for a slew of curses and flying fists. But when they entered the stale darkness of the main room, they found Marvolo Gaunt slumped in his armchair, thankfully deeply asleep, an empty bottle of firewhisky clutched in one wart-covered hand.

Chapter 2: The Beginning
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Author's Notes: I own the plot, original characters, banner, and all chapter images throughout the story. Everything else is owned by J.K. Rowling. Please be aware that I have blended in my own original ideas with canon information and I'll be happy to discuss anything in a review or a PM.

Chapter Two: The Beginning
by Girldetective85

"Each friend represents a world in us, a world possibly not born until they arrive, and it is only by this meeting that a new world is born."
- Anais Nin

"Here it is!" Bethe Lawney located a tiny bottle on her crowded shelves and turned to her customer with a triumphant smile. "Essence of woolseed and echinacea, guaranteed to cure boils within three days of use."

The young woman on the other side of the counter gazed doubtfully at the label. "Just three days?" she repeated.

"Three days," confirmed Bethe. "Take one drop with each meal. If you're at all unsatisfied, Kate, come straight back for a full refund," she added kindly.

The other woman’s face broke into a smile. "I should know better than to doubt you, Bethe," she said apologetically, dropping her money on the counter. "My neighbor has been going to you for years, and Grandmama even prefers you to Dr. Hamlin."

"That’s very kind of her." Bethe beamed. One of the reasons she loved owning the shop was because of the incredible support from her customers. Some of them, like Kate Henry’s neighbor and grandmother, had been buying their tonics and potions from her shop since it opened a decade before.

After Kate had gone, Bethe began tidying the shelves and dusting off the counters, preparing to close shop for the day. She slipped her basket over one arm and stepped out onto the cobblestone street, locking the door securely behind her. "Until tomorrow," she murmured, looking affectionately at the handpainted sign that read Lawney Medicine Shoppe.

It was a mild evening and the little tree-lined street was filled with people taking the air. As Bethe made her way to the main road, nodding and smiling at familiar faces as they passed, she was greeted by two old women sitting on a bench in front of the bakery. She made a point to stop and chat, having long learned that the only way to avoid being in the village gossip was to befriend the gossipers.

"Hello, Mrs. Shepherd, Mrs. Johnson," she greeted them cheerfully. "How are you this evening?"

Mrs. Shepherd, a fat, rosy-cheeked woman with a personality to match, smiled up at her benevolently. "Much better, dear, after that lavender ointment you gave me. I'm happy to say my nerves are no longer bothering me."

"I’m content myself, seeing as my niece has finally got engaged," spoke up Mrs. Johnson, thin and sharp-eyed, whose mission in life was to pair up everyone around her. One quick glance took in Bethe’s shining black hair and slim figure. "You're looking well, Bethe," she remarked. "I still don’t understand why you'd rather run a shop instead of finding a nice husband. Thirty-two is not too old to marry, you know."

Bethe laughed, amused rather than offended. "You sound like my mother, Mrs. Johnson," she exclaimed.

"Well your mother is a wise woman," Mrs. Johnson was saying tartly. Even as she spoke to Bethe, her keen gray eyes were roaming up and down the street, noticing everything and everyone. "Speaking of settling down," she said in a hushed voice, "it looks as though Alice Everett has finally caught the blacksmith’s boy." She watched a young couple standing a few yards away, holding hands and talking.

"Her parents will be happy, they’ve been pushing for the match for ages," said Mrs. Shepherd complacently. "And did you know that Eva Porter and Amos Fern moved up the date of their wedding?"

Mrs. Johnson raised her eyebrows. "That could only mean one thing." The two women looked at each other significantly. Bethe cleared her throat, preparing to make an excuse to leave, when Mrs. Johnson added, "And of course we musn't forget the most important engagement of the summer. The Squire’s son is to be married this November, Bethe, did you know?"

Bethe raised her eyebrows with polite interest. "Oh?" She adjusted her basket pointedly, hoping they would realize she had herbs to collect and hadn't the inclination to hear more gossip.

"Why, yes," Mrs. Shepherd chimed in, "that beautiful girl has accepted young Master Riddle. Lord bless me, I can’t remember her name — Miss Ingle or something —"

"Miss Ingram, dear, Cecilia Ingram," her friend corrected her. "Her father grew up with the Squire. I suppose that’s how their children met. Handsome young couple, but proud and conceited like the rest of their kin. I daresay they’re a fine match for one another."

Like all the villagers, Bethe only saw the Riddles when they descended from their hilltop manor to attend church on Sundays. They seemed like rather unpleasant people. Mr. Riddle was a rotund, bulging-eyed glutton of a man, and what good looks he'd had in youth were long gone. Mary Riddle was a pretty woman with an ice-cold demeanor. Haughty and disdainful, she rushed to and from her carriage each Sunday so as not to mingle with the commoners longer than necessary. As for their son Tom, he had been the cause of many a fluttering heartbeat since his fifteenth birthday, but looked at no one with more than contempt and condescension. His rudeness had, if anything, increased now that he was twenty-two.

"How interesting," Bethe remarked politely, though she felt she couldn't care less about the ill-mannered Riddles, "and now, I really must be going, ladies. I have some heartsease and a little nightshade I need to collect -"

"Nightshade?" Mrs. Johnson repeated. "You'll be going by that tramp's cottage then, that hill's the only place where it grows." She gestured toward Bethe's basket. "You've brought a weapon, I hope?"

Mrs. Shepherd gasped. "Amelia! Really, what a thing to say!"

"Oh come now, Lucy! Everyone knows Gaunt is off his rocker," said Mrs. Johnson impatiently. "And that psychotic son of his, playing with snakes and making snake noises. Completely barmy, the lot of them. Who knows what they could do to an innocent girl?"

"Now, now, there’s no need to worry," Bethe interrupted, before the argument could escalate. "I promise to be very careful. Besides, the nightshade grows on the eastern side of the hill, well away from Mr. Gaunt's cottage. He'll have no reason to accuse me for trespassing." She said goodbye and continued on her way through the village with relief. It took only five minutes to reach the main road that led up through Gaunt's Hill and eventually out of Little Hangleton. As she walked Bethe found herself wondering about the strange man and his even stranger family.

The Gaunts, like the Riddle family, were elusive and very rarely descended from their hill. Mr. Gaunt seemed to be quite the alcoholic, visiting the Hanged Man each month for a supply of whiskey bottles. Oh, the stories the villagers had to tell when Marvolo Gaunt came to their pub! Bethe pictured his bloodshot eyes and withered, apelike face. She wondered what misery lay in the past that so desperately had to be forgotten with drink and anger. Her heart ached with sympathy for his daughter. At least the son looked like he could handle him - though it seemed unlikely Gaunt would ever turn his anger against the favored child.

That poor girl can't be more than seventeen or eighteen, Bethe guessed. Girls at that age particularly needed love and care, which Gaunt's daughter certainly did not have. In the years that Bethe had lived in the village, she had never once seen an overture of friendship made to the Gaunts. That would explain why they're reclusive, she thought wryly, if every time they come to town, people jeer and glare and whisper.

She had reached the crest of the hill. Making her way off the path, she easily found a patch of nightshade growing in the shadow of a large oak. She slipped on some light gloves and began collecting a few of the branches and berries. Somewhere in the tree above her, a twig snapped. Bethe's head shot up, instantly alert. "Who's up there?" There was no answer. She stood up and placed her hands on her hips. "I know you're there. Do not make me climb this tree and pull you out by your ear."

A bare foot emerged from among the leaves and branches, and finally the hem of a gray cotton dress. A girl jumped down and stood in front of Bethe, sheepishly avoiding her eyes. It was none other than Gaunt's daughter.

"Why hello," Bethe said pleasantly, determined to show her that one person on Earth was friendly. "How do you do?"

"Hello," the girl mumbled, hanging her head. "I'm sorry I startled you." She was almost a head taller than Bethe but her slumped posture made her look much shorter.

"Oh, that's quite all right!" Bethe smiled at her. "I like climbing trees too, although I haven't done it in some time. I'm just here to pick some nightshade."

The girl finally looked up and Bethe thought that she had never seen a sadder person in her life. Her face was caked with dirt and a few telltale trails led down her cheeks. Her eyes were a murky brown and a bit swollen as though from frequent crying, but it was the expression in them that struck Bethe. These were the eyes of a completely miserable soul. "It's poisonous, you know," the girl was muttering.

"What? Oh, the nightshade. Yes, I know," Bethe replied cheerfully, stooping to collect some more berries. "Nightshade is a powerful poison but ironically, if you know how to use it, it can also be an antidote."

"Really?" The girl wiped her face with one threadbare sleeve. What Bethe had originally thought to be a gray cotton dress appeared up close to be a cloth sack, sewn awkwardly to create a baggy shift. My God, the child doesn't even have clothing, she thought with a stab of pity.

"Really," Bethe continued, sensing her interest. "It's also given to newborn babies. Ella Henry down in the village just had a baby boy." She neatly wrapped the berries and the leaves in separate handkerchiefs. "He slept normally and ate normally, but just kept crying and crying. I thought it might be colic and made up a little solution of this for Ella to give him. Now he's happy as can be."

The girl stood a little closer. "What's colic?"

"Nobody knows for certain," Bethe explained, "but I think it's something like a stomach upset in adults. Although I don't recommend nightshade for that." She sat back on her heels thoughtfully. "A little chamomile tea or some knotgrass tonic would do the trick."

"You know so much about medicine," remarked the girl shyly, looking awed.

Bethe smiled kindly at her. "Years of long practice, that's all. Spend as much time exploring the meadows and reading about herblore as I do, and you will too."

The girl's face fell. "I can't read much. I never really learned how."

"Why then, I'll teach you if you like," Bethe exclaimed.

The poor girl shrank back as though in fear. "I can't. Father doesn't like me to read."

Bethe gazed thoughtfully at her. "I see. But the question is, do you want to learn?"

There was a moment's hesitation. "Yes ... I think."

"Well all right. I have an idea. How often does your father go into the village, and how long does he stay there?"

"On the first of each month," replied the girl, "to the - the pub." She blushed. "He's usually gone for two hours or so."

Bethe nodded. "The first of July is in two days, so we can have our lesson then. But I think it best if we meet every two weeks."

"But Father only leaves the house once a month," the girl pointed out, puzzled.

"Then make certain he needs to leave every two weeks," Bethe said with a smile. "You can figure that out. Shall we meet here around the same time?"

A tentative smile touched the corners of the girl's mouth, and she nodded. "I'll try."

Bethe smiled back encouragingly and stood up, slipping the basket back over her arm. She extended one hand. "I'm Bethe Lawney."

The girl took her hand shyly. "Merope Gaunt."

Chapter 3: Through Different Eyes
  [Printer Friendly Version of This Chapter]

Author's Notes: I own the plot, original characters, banner, and all chapter images throughout the story. Everything else is owned by J.K. Rowling. Please be aware that I have blended in my own original ideas with canon information and I'll be happy to discuss anything in a review or a PM.

Chapter Three: Through Different Eyes
by Girldetective85

"To know the value of generosity, it is necessary to have suffered from the cold indifference of others."
- Eugene Cloutier

Merope sat cross-legged on a cushion, reading in the sunlight that streamed through the attic window. As she finished the last page, she closed the book with a dreamy sigh. How romantic Verona must be, she thought, leaning her head back against the windowsill. She could easily picture the hazy Italian sunshine, the sloping green vineyards, and the streets lined with olive trees. She imagined herself on the balcony of a palazzo, a tangle of roses creeping up its buttery stone walls, the soft breath of flowers rising to meet her. And Tom would be there of course, looking up at her with worship in his eyes, asking her to defy Marvolo and run away with him. She knew what her answer would be. Yes! Yes, yes, yes!


The beautiful daydream shattered, and Merope rose to her feet with a groan. "Coming, Father!" Thank goodness I didn't go read outside, she told herself. Despite the beautiful August afternoon, she had followed her instinct and remained at home. Lately her father's mood had been even worse than usual, and not being home when he wanted her would be asking for trouble. She thought she knew the reason for his crabbiness and smiled to herself as she descended the ladder.

Marvolo rounded on her as soon as she reached the bottom rung. "Merope, where the devil is my whiskey?" he demanded. "This is the second time in a month that half the bottles have disappeared!"

"I don't know, Father," she answered quietly.

"What do you mean, girl?" he roared, stomping over to the rusty cabinet where he kept his drink. "Look here, ten bottles. I bought twenty the Friday before last and now half of them are gone!" He took one out, ripped off the top, and guzzled greedily with a disgusting smack of the lips. "Damn Muggles can't even make a decent whiskey," he mumbled, grimacing, and then took another swig anyway. "I'd be sipping firewhisky right now if I weren't banned from Hogsmeade for life."

Merope watched him drink the bottle dry. At the rate he's going, he'll be out of it in two days ... even tomorrow, if I wanted. She thought of the dozens of bottles she had hidden with a simple Vanishing Charm and struggled to hide a smile. Suddenly an idea struck her. "Father," she said cautiously, "would you like me to go into the village and buy more?"

In the corner of the house, where he sat toying with a live adder, Morfin glanced up.

Their father turned his bloodshot eyes on Merope and looked at her curiously. "You?"

"Yes, Father. I-I could go tomorrow if you like," she stammered, disconcerted by his scornful stare.

After a long pause, Marvolo sniffed and answered, "I suppose you could. It would save me a trip to look at bucktoothed Muggles every month." He laughed loudly at his own wit, and then glared suspiciously at her. "Now look here, why are you so interested in going to the village all of a sudden? You never wanted to before."

"Our garden is running dry," she said lamely, "and we need vegetables and - and things for the soup."

Marvolo seemed to accept this answer and shrugged disinterestedly. "Go tomorrow then. Morfin, boy!" he exclaimed, turning to his son. "You're squeezing that snake dry."

Morfin had been listening to their conversation, unaware of his strong death grip on the snake. He released it but it was too late. The snake fell limply to the floor and lay utterly still.

Merope walked quickly over to the stove to hide the triumph in her face. With almost no effort at all, she had just bought herself more time for reading lessons. It was so easy, so ridiculously easy. Come to think of it, everything seemed easier since her schooling with Bethe had begun.

For one thing, reading came as naturally to her as breathing. After two lessons she was already reading some of the world's greatest literature, consuming every book Bethe lent her with a frantic fervor.

For another thing, her cooking had improved tremendously. Just last month she'd had trouble boiling water. Now with a flick of her wand, she could make a delicious rabbit stew within minutes. With a flick of her wand, she could suddenly do anything from simple household chores to making Marvolo's whiskey bottles disappear.

Merope didn't quite understand how or why but she did know that for the first time, things were beginning to look up.

As she busily combined ingredients for lunch, she thought affectionately of Bethe. Never before in eighteen years of life could Merope remember having had a friend. Attending Hogwarts had been out of the question. "That damn school is going to the dogs," Marvolo had grumbled, "accepting Mudbloods and teaching them magic, for heaven's sake! No child of mine is going to sit in a classroom with Muggle spawn." As a result, his two children had grown up almost completely illiterate - that is, until now. I suppose some things do change, Merope mused while stirring the soup thoughtfully.

"That's not blood, boy!" Marvolo was remarking loudly to his son as they examined the wilted snake on the floor. "Animals don't have blood, only humans do! That's just the potion that makes them live, put there by the great wizard in the sky. You know, he's an ancestor of ours, he is."

And of course, there are things that don't change, Merope thought grimly. She watched them out of the corner of her eye, just in time to see Marvolo utter a wall-shaking belch and commence emptying his nose onto the floor. What revulsion, what fear and hatred she had once felt for the drunkard who now sat contentedly picking his nose had been gradually replaced by a strange, alien feeling. She had often seen it in others' eyes when they looked at her and sometimes even in Bethe's eyes, though she took care to hide it. It was pity, a deep and profound pity for his determined ignorance and squalor.

The questions that had haunted her even as a child came flooding back. Has he ever even known love? Did he love my mother?

A single memory blossomed in her mind of a sunny Christmas morning when the village was blanketed in snow. Their cottage had been different then: neat and clean with a cheerful fire roaring in the hearth. Her two-year-old self had been sitting under the tree with Morfin, a chubby boy of six. They had each been taking turns opening gifts, and now it was their mother's turn. She lifted a bracelet out of a small box and it glittered in the light of the fire. "Oh Marvolo. It's beautiful." And her parents had leaned towards one another and kissed. "It's a family heirloom," her father had explained, "a treasure for my treasure."

Yes. Merope was certain of it. He loved her and she loved him. But why did she remember another Christmas when the cottage was dark and cold, when she and her brother huddled together in a corner and watched their parents screaming at each other. To this day her mother's words still haunted her dreams. "Everything was a lie!" she had shouted, taking off her wedding band and throwing it at Marvolo. "This isn't real, none of it! It's all just a sham, a hideous farce!" The next day she and all of her possessions disappeared. That was the day Marvolo began to drink.

Marvolo's voice suddenly broke into her thoughts. "What are you looking at, girl?"

Merope gasped, suddenly realizing she had been staring at her father. "Nothing," she said quickly, and ladled the soup into a bowl. Carefully she brought it over and held it out for him. "Here you are, Father. Careful. It's hot."

Her father took it and sampled a spoonful. He looked up at her and grunted. "Needs salt," he mumbled, and that was the first sign of approval he had ever given her.

* * *

"So you finished it!" Bethe exclaimed the next day, when Merope visited her in the shop. She took the book from her, pleased. "How did you like it?"

"It was beautiful," Merope said enthusiastically, taking a seat at the counter. "I never knew someone could write like that. The scene after their wedding night, when they saw each other for the last time..." She sighed again and rested her chin on her hands. "He compared her to the sun, because she was the light of his world."

Bethe laughed approvingly. "Exactly! Oh Merope, you are a romantic!"

"I suppose I am," she admitted. "But doesn't everyone wish for a handsome prince to come and save them sometimes?"

Bethe eyed her new friend with a curious smile. "Who would you want to be saved by, dear?"

Merope looked at her, seemingly eager to say something. She decided against it and turned away to look out the window. "Well you already have, so I suppose I don't need saving for a little while now," she answered lightly.

Bethe began organizing the dried herbs on her shelf, watching the younger woman with mixed affection and puzzlement. Never before had she met someone who mystified her as Merope did. She had been deprived of love and care, yet still had the capacity for both. She had been denied kindness, yet still found it in her heart to be kind. Somewhere underneath the hurt and resentment, Merope did love her father, whether she herself was aware of it or not. If she could love someone like that, someone who treats her like dirt, Bethe mused, how she would worship someone who loved her back!

The thing that amazed her most of all, however, was the fact that the girl had gone from being practically illiterate to reading classic literature within the incredible space of six weeks.

She watched as Merope examined some bottles in the side cabinet, contentedly reading all of the labels to herself. This child is something else, she realized. She's ... strange, unique, abnormal. There's much more to Merope Gaunt than I had thought - than anyone had thought.

"Have you ever been in love, Bethe?" Merope asked suddenly, looking up at her with those strange dark eyes.

The question caught her off guard. "Yes, as a matter of fact," she answered, pausing in her work. "I grew up in Bellever, where my adoptive mother raised me. His name was Benjamin and his father was the village doctor. We were almost engaged, you know."

"Really!" Merope said interestedly. "What happened?"

"I'm afraid his family didn't approve of me. My mother was poor and I was odd," her friend explained, and winked. "Still am odd. It would never have come to anything anyway."

Merope frowned. "You can't know that!" she protested.

"We were from different worlds, Benjamin and I," continued Bethe. "He belonged to the ballrooms and the parlors, and I belong ... here." She looked around her shop with great affection.

"That shouldn't matter if you loved one another!" Merope argued. "Money and status have nothing to do with the heart. Take a wealthy heir and a - a peasant, for instance. If he loved her and she loved him, do you think they'd give a damn about money?"

Bethe looked at her intently. "Merope!" she cried. "You're in love! Aren't you?" She laughed when the girl blushed. "Well, who is he? Tell me!"

"It doesn't matter," she answered grudgingly. "It won't come to anything anyhow."

"You can't know that," Bethe responded, echoing Merope's words. She smiled kindly. "What seems to be the trouble?"

Merope sighed. "The most important element of all. He doesn't love me back and he never will."

It seemed to Bethe as if time suddenly stood still. Her vision clouded briefly, the cabinets and the shelves of her shop growing fuzzier until she saw nothing but a gray haze. Without warning, it all came back into focus and she saw Merope standing in front of her, looking anxious and frightened.

"Bethe! Are you all right?" she demanded, handing her a glass of cold water. "Drink this! Lord, you've gone so pale. Sit down." She pushed Bethe into a chair and stood over her nervously.

Bethe frowned up at the girl, confused. "What are you talking about? What happened?"

Merope still looked unnerved. "Two minutes ago," she began, "I was telling you that this man would never love me back. All of a sudden you went pale and your eyes went out of focus. And you said that he would love me, would love me more than anything. 'If you so choose.' Those were your words. But your voice sounded so different. It frightened me!"

Bethe gasped. "I said that? But I don't recall -"

"You did," insisted Merope, looking pale herself, though her dark eyes were more alive than Bethe had ever seen them. The expression in them was so strange; they were full of eagerness, shock, and even realization.

At Merope's insistence Bethe agreed to close the shop early and go home to rest. It was only when she returned to her little cottage that she broke down in tears, shaking and wiping the perspiration from her forehead.

"It's happening again," she whispered, hugging herself. "God help me, it's happening again and I don't know why."

* * *

Late that afternoon when Merope returned home, she climbed the ladder into the attic. Morfin had disappeared again - no doubt hunting for more snakes to torture - and Marvolo was anchored to his armchair, napping in a contented drunken haze.

She went to stand in front of the window, placing her palms on the sill. The breeze ruffled playfully through her long hair and she closed her eyes and turned her face to the sky, enjoying the warmth of the sun on her skin. She thought about Bethe's words back in the shop. He will love you, Bethe had intoned, in that strange monotone, this man will love you more than anything ... if you so choose.

Bethe, though she apparently knew it not, was a witch. And a clairvoyant one at that, realized Merope. It had almost certainly been a prophecy. But would it come true?

He will love you ... if you so choose ... he will love you ...

Merope opened her eyes, her face still lifted to the sun. She heard the jingling of reins and looked down into the courtyard. Tom was riding past the cottage on his glossy stallion as always, but today he was watching her as though he could not look away.

Instead of hiding as she would have done yesterday, Merope gazed back at him steadily. Then she turned and walked away from the window without a backward glance.

Chapter 4: The Engagement Party
  [Printer Friendly Version of This Chapter]

Author's Notes: I own the plot, original characters, banner, and all chapter images throughout the story. Everything else is owned by J.K. Rowling. Please be aware that I have blended in my own original ideas with canon information and I'll be happy to discuss anything in a review or a PM.

Chapter Four: The Engagement Party
by Girldetective85

"Romance is the privilege of the rich."
- Oscar Wilde

Tom Riddle dug his heels into his horse's flank, urging the chestnut stallion into a canter towards the wooden fence. At the last possible second the horse bunched his muscles and took flight, soaring over the fence and landing easily on the other side. Tom reined him in to a slow walk and patted his neck. "Well done, old boy," he murmured. Apollo had been a birthday gift from his father, and Tom had been diligently training the horse for months.

As they headed for home, he thought how pleasant it was to ride in the solitude of the fields, away from the irritation of an audience. He had been riding since he was a small boy and had grown up doing everything from steeple chasing to fancy dressage. The only thing he hated was how people gushed at his talent - most especially his parents.

"He's the finest horseman in the county," Thomas Riddle would say pompously. "Born to be a true country gentleman is my Tom. Not like those citified dandies who mince around London." Yet another jab at his city-bred wife.

Mary Riddle always coldly ignored him. She would beam at her son, her light, her world - all in all, the only reason she hadn't permanently left Riddle Manor for the London townhouse. "My Tom, is there anything you can't do?"

The men praised him reverently. The women sighed and simpered and giggled. He could do no wrong, no matter how little he did right.

Tom had to admit it to himself: being young, privileged, and wealthy certainly had its advantages. Esteem and respect - even open worship - weren't always unwelcome. But there were times when the manor's gilded walls and gold-leaf ceilings seemed to close in on him; when his parents' polite insults to one another grated upon his ears; and when he was just plain tired of being followed around by servants and spied on by lovesick village girls. Those were the times that he would go out to the stables, saddle Apollo, and go riding for hours and hours. Those were the times he could escape being Master Riddle, young lord of the manor, and just be himself.

Now, he directed his horse up the crest of Gaunt's Hill, as they called it in the village. Ridiculous, really, he thought scornfully, as Father owns every blade of grass in Little Hangleton. The villagers, being the spineless, useless provincials they were, fearfully avoided Gaunt and his mad son. Tom, however, always made sure to ride jauntily past the cottage. Someone had to put that pauper in his place.

As always the crooked chimney was the first thing he saw, emerging from the trees like a twisted cigar. Next came the cheap clay roof and finally the shack itself appeared, all stained clapboard and cracked windows. But these things were now so familiar to Tom that he barely noticed them at all.

Lately, he had found himself looking for the girl.

He knew well that she watched him, that she had been watching him for years. Usually she turned beet red and scurried away when she saw him. That had suddenly changed. She stopped hiding when he came riding by. Sometimes she was even outdoors in the pathetic little garden or sitting on the doorstep with a book in her lap. Each time, she looked him directly in the eye. Two days ago she had even given him a nod of greeting, which he had returned as slightly as possible. He found himself wondering what she would do next. Would she dare speak to him?

And there she was again, reading on the doorstep, her face hidden behind a dark curtain of hair. She was called Merope, he remembered, from having heard it shouted so often. The faintest star of the Pleiades, he recalled from his lessons, because she fell in love with a mortal. Tom decided that the mother, wherever she was, must have named her; Gaunt was too much of an insane half-wit to think of something like that.

Startled by the sound of hoofbeats, she looked up at him abruptly. She's no beauty, but she's not as hideous as I thought, Tom realized with some surprise. They continued looking at each other in an awkward silence. Just as Tom was about to ride on, she spoke. "Good day," she said quietly.

"Good day," Tom returned, shocked into speech.

The corners of her mouth turned up politely, and then she silently returned her attention to her book.

Still a little shocked, Tom continued on his way but couldn't resist a backward glance. She was still reading, but a face had appeared in the kitchen window. Her barmy brother was openly watching him from inside, a sneer of pure evil on his face. The sight gave him chills and he turned away, urging Apollo to go faster. They galloped the whole way home.

* * *

Tom returned home to find Riddle Manor in a state of mild chaos. The foyer was teeming with servants who rushed to and fro, scrubbing the marble floors, washing windows, and polishing the banisters. Chadworth, the head butler, stood on the grand staircase barking orders. He saw Tom and rushed towards him, bowing deferentially. "Your mother requested that you join her for tea on the terrace, sir."

"Very well." Tom handed him his hat and made his way into the ballroom, which was even more crowded if that were possible. Servants perched on ladders dusting the chandeliers, while maids cleaned the carpet and arranged the flowers. Ignoring their low curtsies and murmured greetings, Tom went straight to the French doors and out onto the stone terrace.

Mary Riddle was reclining gracefully on a rosewood chair, watching a small army of gardeners prune the lilac trees. She turned and smiled lovingly at her son. "There you are, dear," she remarked, letting him drop a gentle kiss on her cheek, "I was beginning to wonder when you would return."

"Did you think I would miss the party?" he asked lightly, surveying the array of pastries in front of him and selecting a blackberry scone.

"I'd be extremely put out if you did, after all the work I've done," she responded, pouring him a cup of tea. "Do you know how many maids I've had to scold today?" She sipped her own tea delicately. "But you know I never complain dear, when it's all for your happiness. This is to be the social event of the season after all."

Tom sighed. "Honestly I'd rather have a smaller gathering, Mother. A fortnight of preparation and three hundred guests is a little daunting."

Mrs. Riddle looked shocked. "Don't be ridiculous, Tom. It has to be lavish and extravagant. You're marrying a viscount's daughter, for goodness' sake." She gestured to a maid to clear away her plate. "Anyway this will be nothing compared to the wedding in November."

"Well, I'll be relieved when it's all over," her son confessed, "and Cecilia and I are finally in Venice, away from the prying eyes and wagging tongues."

At that moment a flurry of bowing servants announced the arrival of Thomas Riddle. Disregarding them all, he waddled towards his family with difficulty. "Back so soon, Tom?" he boomed, clapping his son's shoulder. He settled his massive form into a chair which creaked in protest, and a maid hurried forth to replace a plate of pastries. "And how was the riding today?" he asked, smearing a scone or three with a generous dollop of clotted cream.

"Very nice, Father," Tom responded, "Apollo cleared every jump all afternoon."

Mr. Riddle nodded approvingly, swallowing a large bite of raspberry cake. "Good. At the price I paid for him, that horse should jump over the moon if you told him to."

"I've half a mind to bring him along to Italy when I go."

"A splendid idea," his father replied.

"A terrible idea!" interjected Mrs. Riddle, who had been cringing with disgust since her husband's arrival. "Why, pray, would you bring along a horse on your honeymoon?"

Her husband gave her a scathing look. "Afraid it'll be costly, are you? Wish you'd thought of that before buying all that Paris frippery." He gulped down some tea loudly and turned to his son. "Be sure that you rein in Cecilia early, my boy. Give her an inch and she'll spend your entire fortune on scarves."

"The expense means nothing to me," snapped his wife, sitting up straighter in her chair. "I only meant that Tom should spend time with his new bride and not his horse."

"For land's sake, woman, let the boy do as he likes!" Mr. Riddle bellowed.

"Stop there," Tom interrupted, before they could continue the shouting match. "Mother, I only thought of bringing Apollo so that Cecilia and I could tour Italy on horseback."

Struggling to regain her composure, his mother smiled. "I see, dear. You always know what is right."

"Of course he knows what is right!" Mr. Riddle looked at his only child with a savage pride. "He's a Riddle!"

Mrs. Riddle touched her son's arm. "I'm glad for you, Tom, and I'm sure your father is as well," she remarked, glancing scornfully at her husband. "I think you and Cecilia will be very happy. I believe marrying for love always is."

"You couldn't have made a better choice, son," added his father. And they both sat there beaming at him, beaming at the only thing they could ever agree on in twenty-three years of marital misery.

Tom smiled back, and didn't bother reminding them that Cecilia was as much their choice as she was his.

Marriage had been an unspoken assumption since their infancy. After all, the Riddles had money and the Ingrams were titled - it was a match made in heaven. Perhaps it had even been fate that had placed Thomas Riddle and Charles Ingram on the same cricket team at school. In any case, the families would celebrate the engagement tonight and in two months, Tom and Cecilia would finally marry.

It was all set in stone.

* * *

The beautiful, lilting waltzes of Strauss filled the ballroom of Riddle Manor, blending in with laughter, conversation, and the light tinkling of champagne flutes. Guests dressed in their finest danced and drank and gossiped, while the happy young couple held court at the front of the room.

Cecilia Ingram leaned against her fiance's arm, basking in the admiration. It had taken her six hours to dress despite the assistance of two maids, her sister, and her mother, but it had all been worth it just to see Tom's expression. She knew what a splendid vision she made in deep jade watered silk. He smiled down at her and she gazed back at him adoringly.

"Tired of greeting these overstuffed windbags?" he asked her in a low voice, dark eyes twinkling, during a momentary lull in the parade of well-wishers.

She laughed and swatted him playfully with her fan. "Tom!" Then in a whisper, she admitted, "Yes, if you must know."

"Then dance with me," he commanded, tucking her arm under his.

Tom led her in the waltz, just as he led her in every other aspect of their relationship. But Cecilia was perfectly content just to be his, knowing that any woman in the room would gladly change places with her.

Maybe I was silly to worry, she thought. She had often feared that despite all her charm and beauty, she was not enough for him. There was a part of himself that he kept locked away, even from her. Tom was extremely fond of her, but she often wondered if she truly had his whole heart, the way he had hers.

The waltz ended and duty called Tom to his mother's side. The minute he was gone, Cecilia was besieged by her younger sister.

"I'm so glad you listened to me and didn't wear the pink chiffon," said Rose Ingram, kissing her sister's cheek. "You look so lovely, Celia. Tom can't take his eyes off you." She added in a whisper, "And neither can John."

They peeked at a young man standing across the room, watching them. The moment John Havering saw them looking at him, he excused himself from his companions and began to walk towards them.

"He's going to ask you to dance," Rose predicted glumly. "Will you accept?"

Cecilia sighed. "I suppose so, to be polite."

"Tom won't like it," protested the younger girl. She paused and looked at her sister intently. "Cecilia ... you don't have feelings for John still, do you?"

"Of course not!" Cecilia exclaimed indignantly. Though I wasn't opposed to marrying him at one time, spoke a tiny voice in her head. She silenced it immediately, saying, "And to prove that I feel nothing, I will have you dance with him." She turned from Rose's brightening face to the handsome man who appeared before them.

"Good evening, ladies," he said, sweeping them a gallant bow. "Care to dance, Cecilia?"

"I'm afraid I've had enough for tonight," Cecilia answered formally, "but my sister has just expressed her wish to dance." There! That was cold and polite enough, she thought.

John's warm brown eyes were smiling at her. "Then I shall dance with her after our waltz." He held out his arm, giving her no choice but to take it and follow him to the dance floor. "Cecilia," he said urgently once they had reached the safety of the crowd, "why have you been avoiding me?"

"I haven't been avoiding you," she replied uneasily. She was beginning to regret having even looked at him tonight. "I've been busy. My wedding is in two months, though it seems difficult for you to remember at times, John."

"It is difficult for me to accept," he corrected her, looking down into her eyes. "You don't love him, Cecilia. Admit it. You're marrying Tom Riddle out of habit, out of convenience, and because your family expects it. Bad reasons, all of them."

"Stop it, John," she said in a low voice. "Stop it this instant."

His arm tightened around her waist and he looked at her eagerly. "Please, darling," he begged, "listen to me. There's still time to reconsider. Riddle cares for you, but he'll never worship you the way I do. You deserve to be adored, and I've adored you since we were children."

Cecilia shook her head. "Tom loves me," she retorted, "and it isn't your place to speculate on his feelings for me."

"He will never love anyone but himself -" John broke off and looked behind her.

"May I ask what you were saying to make my fiancee look so uncomfortable?" Tom inquired coldly, glowering at his longtime rival. Without waiting for an answer, he took Cecilia's hand from John's and put a protective arm around her. "You'd better leave, Havering," he stated.

John flushed. "Why? So you can keep your property safe? That's all she is to you, isn't it? Just another possession, another prize to keep among your trophies."

Tom let go of Cecilia and advanced menacingly. "I thought I told you to leave, Havering," he said softly.

Cecilia grabbed his arm. "Tom, please don't."

The couples around them had stopped dancing and stood watching in fascination.

Tom had noticed everyone watching and forced a smile. "Go on, keep dancing!" he declared, looking around. "My dear friend and I will continue our discussion outside." He grasped John's arm and steered him in the direction of the French doors, pulling him out onto the terrace. "How dare you," he demanded, "how dare you come into my house, to my engagement party, and try to ruin my happiness? I could kill you for what you said."

"Don't trouble yourself, Riddle," snapped John. "I'm leaving. But I meant every word."

Tom gave a bitter laugh. "You're just jealous of me," he accused, "you've always been jealous of me since we were children. Jealous that I'm loved, that I'm going to be something in this world, when all you are is a second son with a stepfather who couldn't care less."

"You've said quite enough." John pulled his arm away roughly. "I hope you'll at least try to deserve Cecilia, although I highly doubt it." He went back into the ballroom, ignoring the stares, and bowed to Cecilia and her sister. "Goodnight. I beg your pardon, Rose - perhaps we'll have another opportunity to dance."

Cecilia watched him go and then hurried out onto the terrace. Tom was standing with his hands clasped behind his back, looking calmly at the summer moon as though nothing had happened. "Tom, I wish you'd left him alone," she said anxiously.

He turned and smiled, as though surprised to see her, and held out his arms. "Come here, darling."

She stepped into his embrace obediently and rested her head on his chest. "I chose you, you know," she said quietly.

"I know." He kissed the top of her head, and tilted her chin to look into her eyes. "You know what you mean to me, don't you?" She smiled in response and he said decidedly, "Now, we'll speak no more of this. Come dance with me."

* * *

Merope was drying the supper dishes, gazing dreamily out of the kitchen window, when her brother's voice interrupted her reverie. "I know what you're thinking," he hissed.

Merope turned to gaze at him. "What?"

"You're thinking about ... him."

She glanced quickly at their father, who was taking his usual evening nap. "I don't know who you mean."

Morfin stared at her from his seat by the fireplace, the flickering light casting evil shadows on his face. "I could tell Father. Do you know how quickly he'd kill you?"

Merope's hands clenched into tight fists, her heart racing. "You wouldn't," she breathed.

"Maybe I will. And maybe I won't." Morfin rose to his feet and walked to the front door. He opened it, and held up a dead adder against the wormy wood.

I told you, snakey, to be good
I warned you to obey
But I will nail you to the wood
And there you will decay

He stuck a nail right through the body of the snake and proceeded to pound it into the door with his fist, laughing and chanting as he did it.

Merope's fingers reached unconsciously for her wand. I could hex him right now, she thought. His back is turned. I could finish him.

The heavy golden locket grew warm against her chest instantly and she looked down at it. Don't even think about it. Do you know how they punish murderers? the little jewel-eyed snake seemed to say.

I'd rather be in Azkaban than stay here, Merope thought.

No you wouldn't. The emerald glittered in the firelight. Don't do anything. The madman has his part to play in all this, and so do you.

She let go out of the wand and looked at her brother steadily when he turned to grin at her. "I don't care what you do," she stated calmly, walking over to the ladder. "Tell him."

Morfin watched her, open-mouthed, as she climbed to the attic and shut the trapdoor behind her.

Chapter 5: Truth and Consequence
  [Printer Friendly Version of This Chapter]

Author's Notes: I own the plot, original characters, banner, and all chapter images throughout the story. Everything else is owned by J.K. Rowling. Please be aware that I have blended in my own original ideas with canon information and I'll be happy to discuss anything in a review or a PM.

I'd like to acknowledge Misty_Rey and Oksanna88, who have been encouraging and supportive since Chapter 1. Thank you ladies!

Chapter Five: Truth and Consequence
by: Girldetective85

"We dance round in a ring and suppose,
while the secret sits in the middle and knows."

- Robert Frost

"Coming!" Bethe set down the teapot she had been carrying and answered the door. "Merope! Come in dear, I'll have the tea ready in a minute."

Merope stepped inside the modest little cottage, draping her shawl over a chair and admiring the neat interior. Colorful woven rugs warmed the spotless floorboards, and pretty green and gold candles were lit throughout the room. It was an unseasonably chilly night in early September and a fire blazed in the hearth. A calico cat napped in one of two armchairs covered with cushions and heavy quilts. Merope took one of the chairs and smiled. "Your home is lovely."

"Thank you, it isn't much," said Bethe, setting a tray down on the little mahogany stand. She shooed the cat and took its armchair, pouring Merope a cup of tea.

"It's more than I have," Merope said truthfully, sipping the delicious tea and feeling it warm her belly. "Thank you for inviting me tonight."

Bethe smiled at her affectionately. "Thank you for the company. It gets lonely sometimes." She blew on her tea and looked sideways at her friend. "But there's another reason I asked you to come, actually. I have something to tell you."

Merope lowered her cup expectantly. She'd had a feeling that there was something on Bethe's mind.

"It's about what happened in my shop two weeks ago," the young woman began hesitantly, looking into the fire. "When I couldn't remember what had happened, or what I had said - do you remember?"

The girl simply nodded, her dark eyes fixed on Bethe. It had been on her mind constantly ever since.

Bethe took a deep breath and turned to face her. It seemed to take a great deal of effort to say what she had to say. "That wasn't the first time it happened to me," she admitted quietly. "I - I've never told a living soul, but I have these spells from time to time. The first one came when I was five years old." She looked back into the fire. "Afterward, I couldn't recall what I had said, but Mother told me it was something to do with our neighbor."

"She didn't tell you specifically?" asked Merope.

"No. She thought I was delirious, but I had no fever," Bethe responded. "But when Mr. Gibson died of heart failure the following evening, I knew I had something to do with it." She shivered and drew the quilt tightly around herself. "I used to think that I caused these things to happen. It frightened Mother out of her wits and she ordered me never to speak of it again."

They sat in a thoughtful silence. "Bethe," Merope said slowly, setting her cup down, "you told me once that you were adopted. Don't you know anything about your true parents?"

Bethe shook her head. "Only that they died in a boating accident when I was barely a year old," she explained. "I lived in an orphanage in Haymouth until I was three, when Clarice Graham came to adopt me. She was a lonely widow and I was a lonely orphan."

"Graham? Then Lawney was your true parents' name?" Merope inquired, looking at her friend searchingly. "You have no clues as to where you were born? No idea what your father's profession was?"

"No, I know nothing about it and neither does Mother. She only cared about getting me, not about where I came from," answered Bethe, watching Merope closely. "What's on your mind?"

"I don't know how to tell you this, Bethe. But I think - from what you've told me -" Merope frowned, and decided to say it very quickly. "I think that you are a witch like - like me." She held her breath, expecting shock or anger.

Instead, Bethe remained silent for a long time. "Tell me," she said finally, in a calm voice.

Merope explained all she knew of the Wizarding world, of people whose unique talents appeared in childhood and were polished in school. She spoke of spells, of flying broomsticks, of a government whose task it was to prevent the discovery of the magical world. And finally, she spoke of Seers, revered among wizards for their clairvoyant ability. "Don't you see, Bethe?" Merope asked urgently. "You haven't been causing these things to happen. You've just been predicting them. You've been making prophecies."

Bethe shook her head. "It's too much to believe," she said quietly. "But what other explanation could there be?" She rose and began pacing back and forth. "I need to know for certain," she said aloud. "I need to find out who my parents were. I have to go back to that orphanage in Haymouth. It's the only way." She took her seat again and looked at Merope, her dark eyes wide. "But that ... prophecy I made in my shop. Has it come true?"

The younger woman shook her head slowly. "No. But I sense that things are changing," she replied softly. "I somehow feel - that your words will come to pass." She sighed and smiled wryly. "I have a confession too, Bethe. Do you know who lives in the manor on the hill?"

"Yes of course. The Riddle family," answered Bethe, "but what does that -" Realization struck her. "It's that young man, isn't it? You love Tom Riddle?" She looked despairingly at the girl. "Oh, Merope!"

"I know," Merope said hastily, "I know what you're thinking. I know he's not right for me. We are literally from two different worlds. But Bethe," she continued earnestly, "I've loved him for so long. And now that he is finally beginning to see me, now that I know his future and mine are one..."

"Oh Merope, be careful!" begged Bethe, distressed. "I wish I'd never met you. I feel as though I've ... condemned you to your fate."

"Condemned me?" Merope repeated, and leaned forward to hug her friend. "You have ensured me a future of love and happiness."

"Tom Riddle is spoiled and arrogant," insisted Bethe. "I know his kind, Merope. I've seen his parents and the way they treat anyone beneath themselves. I won't have you near them, not for anything in the world."

Merope shook her head. "Perhaps his parents are that way, but you're wrong about him," she stated breathlessly. "I've looked into his eyes. I know him, though we've hardly spoken three words to one another. He and I are the same." She gazed thoughtfully into the dancing flames. "Finally I know my purpose, Bethe. I know I have a future." She looked reassuringly at the other woman's frightened face. "All will be well. You'll see."

Bethe squeezed the girl's hand. "For your sake, dear," she returned, "let's hope so."

* * *

The following evening, Merope busied herself with clearing away the supper dishes. She had roasted a small chicken in sage and rosemary and the whole shack still smelled of its delicious fragrance.

Marvolo was sitting at his usual place in the armchair, picking at his teeth. "Where'd you find a chicken with such tough skin, girl?" he complained, though he had eagerly eaten half of it. "My jaw is half numb from chewing." There was a pause. And then suddenly: "Your mother never cooked like that."

Merope turned from the pot she had been scrubbing and waited for more.

"She was useless in the kitchen, with or without magic," he continued, almost as though talking to himself. "In those days I cooked. I would have done anything just to see her smile." He seemed to realize that his daughter had been listening and threw her a hateful look. "Get back to work, girl!" he barked. "Don't just stand there with your mouth hanging open." He popped open his whiskey bottle, hands trembling, and downed half of it in one gulp.

Merope turned quickly and continued cleaning, though she ached with longing to ask about her mother. It wasn't often that she had an opportunity like this, but she wisely kept quiet, unwilling to earn a bruise for her trouble. When all the pots and pans were finally clean, she turned around to find Marvolo dozing comfortably. She wiped her hands on her apron and prepared to retreat into the attic.

A knock on the door made her pause in climbing the ladder. Who could that be? she thought.

Morfin, who had left to find a new snake, wouldn't knock on his own door. Cautiously she peered through the kitchen window. Tied to the little fence around her garden plot was an elegant chestnut stallion, his coat gleaming in the dusky light. Her heart jumped into her throat. She would know that horse anywhere. No ... it can't be... The knock came again, slightly more impatient. Merope reached for the doorknob slowly, feeling as though she were in a dream. And there he was, standing on the front step looking right at her.

She had only ever seen him on horseback, so it surprised her to see how tall he really was. A tall girl herself, Merope had to tilt her head back slightly to meet his eyes. He held his broad shoulders confidently and though he was very slender, Merope didn't doubt that he had the strength to crush her with his bare arms. He radiated youth and good health, and the eyes that looked at her - they were a deep greenish hazel, and not brown after all - were steady and certain.

"Good evening," he said, the timbre of his voice surprisingly solemn for such a young man. It was a pleasant voice, certainly nothing like Marvolo's scratching tone or Morfin's growls. Yes, she could easily imagine listening to that low voice and falling asleep in those arms...

"Good evening," she answered, nearly forgetting herself. "May I help you?"

"My horse has thrown a shoe," he explained, gesturing to the magnificent stallion behind him. "Have you a hammer of some sort that I could borrow?"

"Yes, we do." Merope stepped onto the porch to look for Morfin's hammer. It lay to the side of the steps, where her brother kept it for nailing fresh snakes to the door. She straightened and turned to face Tom. "Will this do?"

He took the hammer from her, their hands brushing for a fleeting moment. He had a masculine smell, a pleasant musky scent of mahogany and cinnamon bark. "Yes," he replied. "Hold his head, would you?"

Merope went with him willingly and reached out timidly to the horse. She had never been so close to such a huge animal, but his muzzle was silk to the touch and he docilely allowed her to hold him. "He's beautiful," she ventured, looking at the large, intelligent eyes. "What kind is he?"

Tom had lifted the horse's right leg and was expertly examining the hoof. "He's a Thoroughbred. His name is Apollo."

"Apollo," Merope repeated softly, stroking the coarse brown mane.

Tom was using the curved end of the hammer to pry sharp nails from the horse's hoof. His hands were quick and clever, but he worked with tender care. He glanced up at her and there was a hint of a smile on his face. "It's a Greek name, like yours."

Her heart gave an irregular jump, as though it would leap right out of her chest and into his hands. "You know my name?" she asked in almost a whisper.

"Merope, isn't it?" he asked casually, continuing to work.

She had never thought her name could sound so beautiful. It was like music rolling off his tongue, the three syllables like a flowing triplet in the middle of a half-forgotten song. "Yes," she answered. And then, quite bravely, "And you're Tom."

He looked up at her abruptly and she almost thought he would be angry. Just the surprised expression in his eyes told her that only loved ones used that endearing little nickname. But he didn't seem to be offended. "Yes, I'm Tom." He finished with the hammer and handed it back to her. They stood in the dim light of evening, the air fragrant with lemon and rosemary, and just looked at each other. She thought she could never grow tired of looking at him, and Tom's eyes searched her whole face with open curiosity.

He looked away first, his eyes roaming over the cottage behind her. "It's so quiet here," he commented, "so peaceful." He looked at her again, as though bursting with curiosity. "Are you all alone?"

"My father's asleep," she explained, "and my brother is - not at home." She smiled faintly. "It's not always this quiet."

The corners of his mouth twitched. "Yes, that's what I suspected." He straightened and dusted off his jacket. "Well I must be going. I have to find the farrier before he retires for the night; Apollo can't go on without a shoe." He turned to adjust the stirrups and to check a saddlebag that contained a long, wooden object.

"Is that a bow?" Merope questioned, gesturing towards it.

"Yes, for my violin. I rode to Great Hangleton today to have it rehaired," he responded, looking down at her. "Do you play?"

She had to smile at that. "No, but we have a very old violin. It was my mother's, but I haven't got much use for it." She paused, noticing the interest in his eyes. "Would you like to see it?"

"Yes, I rather would," he admitted. "I've a passion for antique violins." But then he looked up at the steadily darkening sky and began to untie Apollo from the fence. "Perhaps tomorrow afternoon? I really must see the farrier tonight." With one smooth motion he swung himself up into the saddle.

Merope nodded in assent, her heart as light as a feather. Once again she would see him ride away from her, but this time he promised to return.

Tom urged his horse into a walk and turned to look back over his shoulder. "Thank you for your assistance ... Merope."

It was then that it happened, so quickly that neither of them had time to register what was going on. Morfin had apparently been spying on the whole conversation, crouched on the cottage roof beside the chimney. He jumped to the ground with a heavy thud and pointed his wand at Tom. "Furnunculus!" he shouted.

"No!" screamed Merope, rushing to knock over her brother's wand, but he pushed her out of the way.

Morfin's insane little eyes were fixed on Tom, whose handsome face had exploded into a mess of ugly red boils. "Engorgio!" he yelled, laughing maniacally as the boils got bigger. Tom clutched his own neck and fell from the horse, landing heavily on his side. He was coughing desperately, the boils erupting in his throat and blocking his windpipe. The huge open sores were so disfiguring that his face was almost unrecognizable.

Merope rushed to his side and he looked up at her helplessly. "Please ..." he croaked. "Merope..." His skin turned red, and then a translucent blue from lack of air.

"The counter-spell! What is it?" she shouted at Morfin. The only response she got was more maniacal cackling. Of course, she thought, angry with herself, Father taught him to perform hexes, not to remove them! She turned to her only hope. She lifted the heavy locket from her chest and locked eyes with the carved serpent. "Please," she whispered, "help me. Help me save him." The answer came almost immediately.

First Anapneo; then Castoricum. Gratefully, she dropped the locket and rose to her feet. Pointing her own wand at Tom, she cried, "Anapneo!" This seemed to clear Tom's throat and he breathed heavily, welcoming air back into his lungs. He balanced himself on his hands and knees, coughing. "Castoricum!" shouted Merope, and the boils began to pop and to ooze a thick white liquid. Slowly, his face began to clear up.

"Tom," she said gently. "Are you all right?" She was answered with another fit of coughing, and hurried to the pump by the garden. Filling a shallow dish with cool water, she hurried back and gave it to him. "Drink this."

He drank as though his throat were on fire. "I - I couldn't breathe," he told her, gasping. "My throat -"

"I know, but it's all right now," she answered comfortingly. "It's all -"

Tom's eyes widened. "Look out!" he shouted, pulling Merope to one side. Morfin's Body-Bind Curse landed exactly where they had been, missing Merope by inches.

With a couple of loud popping sounds, two wizards appeared from out of nowhere and rushed onto the scene. The younger wizard hurried to suppress Morfin while the elder rushed over to Tom and Merope. He flashed a shiny golden badge at them. "Theodore Mueller," he announced briskly, his white mustache twitching, "Department of Magical Law Enforcement, Ministry of Magic. We have reason to believe that two hexes and an enlargement spell were performed in front of a Muggle, the latest precisely seventeen seconds ago." He looked at the wand in Merope's hand, and then turned his attention to Tom. "You are the Muggle, then?"

Tom looked up at him blankly. "I beg your pardon?" he said haughtily.

"Excellent." Mueller pointed his wand at Tom and murmured something under his breath. The young man's eyes unfocused and refocused again, until he was staring up at Mueller with a confused expression. "Who are you?" he demanded, alarmed at being on the ground. He stared at the girl beside him. "Merope, what happened? We were talking about your violin, and then ... your brother! He jumped off the roof and - and then...." His voice trailed off uncertainly.

"And then you fell off your horse, and this young lady helped you," Mueller finished for him, patting his arm soothingly. He helped him up and led him over to Apollo. "All is well. Thank the young lady and go on home." Tom obediently swung himself into the saddle, still looking confused.

He looked at Merope in surprise, but politely inclined his head. "I'm much obliged to you," he said. "Until tomorrow, then."

"Until tomorrow," she echoed.

"Good man," Mueller said encouragingly. "Now off you go." He watched as Tom rode down the path and out of sight before turning to Merope. "We also got word that healing charms were performed on the Muggle. That was you, Miss?" Merope nodded and explained what had happened, while he examined her wand and verified the last spells performed. Satisfied, he handed it back. "Very good. You've done a useful thing, my dear."

The other Ministry official had Stupefied a hysterical Morfin, who was now lying in the dirt. He dragged him into the house and came back out to whisper a few words to his superior. Merope caught the phrase "drunk as a lord" and realized that her father had slept through the entire incident.

Mueller nodded sagely. "Right then. Expect a visit from the Head of our department tomorrow, as is the usual in breaches of Muggle Protection laws such as this. He will announce a formal date and time for your brother's trial." He gave an abbreviated bow, and both he and the other official disappeared again with a brief popping noise.

Merope was left standing alone in the moonlit yard. The silence enveloped her like a warm blanket, like an embrace.

* * *

The train began to slow down as it entered the station in the little city of Haymouth-on-Rye. The passengers shuffled about, gathering their belongings and preparing to depart.

Bethe rose from her seat by the window and joined the small crowd filing off the train. On the platform, she looked over a map and saw that her destination lay a few blocks into the city. It was a beautiful day for a stroll, an early September afternoon halfway between lush summer and crisp autumn, and Bethe walked confidently in the direction of the Haymouth Orphanage.

She passed a dress shop from which a woman and her adult daughter emerged, arguing over the price of linen. Maybe I should have stopped to see Mother, she thought guiltily, watching the pair bicker with that peculiar affection unique to mother-daughter relationships. Bethe's hometown was only a few train stops away, but she had decided against visiting and gone directly to the city. She had a feeling that Clarice Graham would disapprove if she knew Bethe was visiting the old orphanage.

"Digging up the past never did anyone a bit of good," she would say.

She wouldn't understand, Bethe thought, pausing to read a street sign. I'm not just looking for information on my parents, but information on myself. Thirty-two years of life, and she hardly even knew who she was. Somehow she sensed that this visit to the orphanage would turn up more stones than she had ever dreamed.

The building was an old, sprawling brick structure that looked careworn, and she ran lightly up the steps and lifted the door knocker.

The door was answered by an old housekeeper who showed her into the vestibule. Momentarily she was escorted into the office of Matilda Lyons, owner of the Haymouth Orphanage.

"What can I do for you today, Miss Lawney?" she inquired politely, straightening her round spectacles. Bethe had always thought she looked rather like a kind owl.

"Mrs. Lyons, I once lived here until the age of three," explained Bethe. "I came back to find out more about my deceased parents and perhaps any other living relatives I might have."

The woman gazed at her shrewdly. "You aren't the first orphan to do so," she answered. "Let me see what I can do." From the enormous bookshelf behind her, she pulled down a few dusty volumes. "Each of these books contains names, Miss Lawney, organized by the year that the child was brought here. Sometimes," she continued, flipping through one volume, "we also include any letters, messages, or personal documentation that arrived with the child." She located the section with names beginning with L. "Landing, Lapidow, Larson, Lassney ... Lawney. Here we are." She pushed the volume across the desk at Bethe, who took it eagerly.

Her name had been spelt out in neat cursive at the top of the page. "Isabethe Lawney," she read aloud, "yes, that's me." The information showed that she had been brought to Haymouth at the age of ten months, in the winter of 1893, by a woman called Orla Jones. This woman resided outside Great Hangleton, in a town called Silvermist Woods. "That's just an hour from where I live now!" remarked Bethe, her eyes poring over the page.

"A letter came with you," pointed out Mrs. Lyons, gesturing to the small scrap of yellowed paper attached to the bottom of the page.

With the greatest care, Bethe lifted the weathered document and unfolded it gently. The handwriting was neat but in several places, the ink had been blurred by rain - or was it tears?

December 1893

To the Haymouth Orphanage,

I bring to you an infant girl whose parents have suffered a most untimely death. Five days prior to this letter, the late Alfred and Wilhemina lawney lost their lives in a tragic boating accident. The young man was sadly estranged from his elder brother, whose whereabouts are unknown, and his wife was an orphan herself.

I humbly entreat you to take in their child, who has been given the name of Isabethe. I am, unfortunately, a very old woman, and lack the capability to give a baby the care it requires.

I am very gratefully yours,

Orla Jones
13 Oculovis Lane
Silvermist Woods

"Alfred and Wilhemina," Bethe repeated lovingly, touching her parents' names as though she were touching their faces. She looked up at Mrs. Lyons, who was smiling understandingly at her. "May I keep this?"

"Yes, of course."

Bethe smiled back gratefully and looked down at the letter again, her eyes wet. The page looked even blurrier through a film of tears, and it seemed to her that a huge blurry stain had almost completely erased their last name.

Chapter 6: An Interlude To Love
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Author's Notes: I own the plot, original characters, banner, and all chapter images throughout the story. Everything else is owned by J.K. Rowling. Please be aware that I have blended in my own original ideas with canon information and I'll be happy to discuss anything in a review or a PM.

Chapter Six: An Interlude To Love
by Girldetective85

"If music be the food of love, play on."
- William Shakespeare

Silvermist Woods was a quaint, peaceful country hamlet, a bit larger in size than Little Hangleton. The cottages were well-kept and plenty of cows and horses grazed in the leafy fields. Like in any other rural town, the neighbors called cheerfully to one another, elderly men sat smoking their pipes together on doorsteps, and children played kick-ball on the front lawn.

But the minute Bethe turned onto Oculovis Lane, she instinctively sensed something different about this particular corner of the village. Perhaps it had to do with that oddly dressed woman sweeping her porch. Or maybe it was the little boy playing with a baby owl in the grass, or the four weatherbeaten broomsticks that lay in a pile against a nearby shed. Whatever it was, Bethe could detect it and once again she felt the current of truth in Merope's words.

Number 13 was a little sky-blue cottage with a very neat garden. On her way to the front door, Bethe looked to the houses on the left and right, wondering which had been her parents'. The lane continued for some distance to the right. At its end she could glimpse a high cast-iron gate and the ivy-covered walls of a great mansion. Another Riddle family, she thought ironically. Her knock was answered by a middle-aged woman in an apron covered with flour.

"Good afternoon," said Bethe. "I wonder if a Mrs. Orla Jones lives here?"

"Yes, she's my mother," the woman answered. "Are you a friend?"

"Not particularly, but my parents and I used to live next door," she explained.

The woman took a closer look at her and gasped. "I thought you looked familiar!" she exclaimed. "You're not Wilhemina's daughter, are you?"

Bethe smiled, delighted. "Yes, I am!"

"Come in! Mama has been expecting you," said the woman, excitedly dusting off her apron.

"She has?"

"Of course! Let me have a look at you, dear. The very image of Wilhemina. I'm Marion Fiske," she added, shaking hands warmly. "And you are Isabethe, of course; Mina always loved that name. I was at school with your mother and I was her maid of honor at the wedding."

"How wonderful!" Bethe exclaimed. "Have you always lived here then?"

"I was born and raised here, and your father grew up down the lane," explained Marion, leading the way through the spotless house. "We didn't become friends until he and Mina started dating. He always was a bit arrogant, but I suppose he had an excuse. His mother owned the village, you see."

Bethe gave a start of surprise. "My grandmother owns Silvermist Woods?"

Marion paused and turned to look at her. "Owned it, dear. She died shortly before you were born. Probably rolling in her grave at all the Muggles infiltrating her village these days." She chuckled and continued talking before Bethe could ask what Muggles were. "She lived in that mansion at the end of the lane. Why do you think it's called Oculovis Lane? She always had a way with naming things, and fancy Latin names took the cake." She continued through the house and Bethe trailed after her thoughtfully.

Oculovis ... the eye that sees, she guessed roughly. Latin had never been her strong point.

"Mama, look who's come to see you," announced Marion, walking out into a small garden filled with early September roses.

In a chair by the rose bed sat the most ancient woman Bethe had ever seen. She was small and frail like a bird and her skin was like wrinkled paper. Despite her age, her bright blue eyes were keen and alert. She took one look at Bethe and a slow smile spread across her face. "So," remarked Orla Jones, "you've finally come."

Marion pulled out a chair for Bethe. "I'll let you two talk," she said cheerfully, heading back into the house. "I have some pies that need tending to."

Bethe sat down facing the old woman. "Mrs. Jones, do you know who I am?"

"Of course," she returned, looking intently at her visitor. "You've certainly grown, haven't you? The last time I saw you, you were this big." She moved her hands apart to demonstrate the length of a baby. "I've never stopped wondering what happened to you. I still feel guilty that I couldn't take you in, after having been such friends with your grandmother."

"Please, Mrs. Jones, I don't expect apologies -" Bethe began.

"Ah well, I was old then and now I'm older still," continued the elderly woman as though she hadn't heard. "I would have had Marion take you in, but she was in Africa with her scientist husband. I knew he would come to no good, traveling all over the world like that, and true enough he got the scarlet fever and died. Marion came back, but it had already been four years since I'd given you to the orphanage. When we came to find you, you were gone."

"I was adopted when I was three," spoke Bethe. "We lived in Bellever and then I moved to Little Hangleton ten years ago." She took the letter from her pocket and handed it over. "I went to the orphanage this morning and they gave me the letter you wrote. I came to find you and to hear about my parents."

Mrs. Jones accepted the letter but didn't read it; perhaps her eyesight would not allow her to. "Naturally," she replied. "What would you like to know?"

Bethe took a deep breath. "Were - were they wizards?"

A gurgle of laughter escaped the old woman. "My dear! Of course they were!" She looked sharply at her visitor. "Had I known you'd be adopted by a Muggle - a non-magic person - I would never have given you up. Your parents were a witch and a wizard. Your father was a Trelawney, an ancient wizarding family."

"I beg your pardon ... you mean Lawney, don't you?" Bethe said, confused.

"Trelawney," Mrs. Jones emphasized. "Believe me, I didn't grow up with your grandmother for nothing. Cassandra Trelawney never hesitated to remind everyone of her lineage."

"But the letter -" Bethe began, and suddenly remembered the smudge that had blurred her parents' surname. And of course, the "L" in Lawney had not been capitalized ...

"I apologize. I'm afraid I had been weeping on the letter a great deal the night I gave you away," said Mrs. Jones with a chuckle. "Let me explain everything. The great Cassandra Trelawney was your grandmother. Among her ancestors were two Ministers of Magic, a Headmistress of Hogwarts School, and of course, Cilian Trelawney, the great explorer. Muggles liked to call him a pirate and he didn't bother to correct them. Thought it sounded impressive." She laughed again. "Cassandra herself was known for being a great Seer."

Bethe leaned forward urgently. "A Seer?"

Mrs. Jones eyed her carefully. "It was a gift passed down through the Trelawney women, but Cassandra was the greatest of them all. She was a celebrity among wizards, you know. There was some trouble with the Chocolate Frog Company a few years ago, a scuffle about whether to put her on a Chocolate Frog card..."

The younger woman hadn't the foggiest idea what a Chocolate Frog card was, but decided against asking. She urged Mrs. Jones to continue.

"Cassandra married her cousin and they had two sons. Gerald is still alive today. His younger brother, Alfred, was your father. He grew up spoiled and wayward, but returned from Hogwarts a changed man after he met your mother." Mrs. Jones frowned. "After your grandparents' death, Gerald and Alfred had a blazing row and parted forever. Alfred and his wife moved next door, and all I know of Gerald is that he left for Ireland."

"I wonder what happened," Bethe murmured.

The elderly woman shook her head sadly. "I'm afraid we'll never know. The brothers never reconciled." She sighed heavily. "The night your parents drowned, they were heading for Ireland on holiday. Alfred was too proud to admit it, but I think he was hoping to find your uncle."

Bethe was silent for some time. "Thank you," she said at last, rising from her chair. She was impatient to tell Merope the news. "You've been wonderful to tell me all this, but I must be getting back home."

Mrs. Jones laughed. "You do realize that your home is here now, don't you?" she inquired. She raised her eyebrows at Bethe's puzzled face. "Trelawney Park, that great house at the end of the lane, belongs to you!"

* * *

Bob Ogden, Head of the Magical Law Enforcement Squad, arrived promptly at noon. He was shown in very reluctantly by Marvolo, who had been in a beastly mood all morning thanks to an immense headache.

Merope liked the determined little man at once. He was dressed in an odd assortment of Muggle clothing - no doubt he thought it an excellent disguise - and wore a pair of black spectacles that framed a round, kindly face. "Good morning," he said courteously.

She allowed a fleeting smile to pass over her face before noting her father's thunderous expression, and busied herself at the stove.

"So Morfin knows how to perform hexes," screeched Marvolo, evidently continuing the conversation they'd had outside. "So what? All he did was give a jumped-up Muggle what was coming to him. Is that so wrong?"

Ogden straightened his spectacles. "Yes indeed it is, Mr. Gaunt!" he exclaimed. "In fact, it is illegal. As such, Morfin is required to attend a disciplinary hearing at the Ministry..."

In his corner, Morfin giggled loudly.

"... on September fourteenth at precisely eleven o'clock in the morning," Ogden finished, ignoring him. "He will attend without fail, or we will be forced to escort him."

Marvolo sneered. "So we're to bow to your commands, are we? Do you know who we are?" he demanded, displaying a ring on his right hand. He thrust the huge black stone into Ogden's face. "This jewel shows the Peverell coat-of-arms. The Gaunts are descended from unimaginable wealth, nobility, and power. And this!" He ran over to Merope and grabbed the locket around her neck, waving it in the air. "This locket belonged to the great Salazar Slytherin himself, our most blue-blooded of ancestors."

"Yes, that's all very well," Ogden said impatiently, "but it has nothing to do with the matter at hand, Mr. Gaunt. I repeat, your son will attend a hearing in one week. He will answer to charges of harassment toward a Muggle and performing magic in front of said Muggle, as well as -"

The sound of horses and jingling reins floated in through the window and they all paused to listen. Merope froze in place, hardly daring to look outside. She knew exactly who was approaching.

"What an awful little shack!" remarked a girl's laughing voice. "I still can't believe anyone would live there."

Merope's stomach gave that familiar lurch. So, she thought grimly, he brought her with him again. Almost against her will, she looked out the window at a sight she had seen many times before.

Tom was handsome as ever, wholly unaffected by last night's incident. Riding beside him was Cecilia, stunning in deep red velvet with her shining curls under a smart little cap. They were a picture-perfect couple.

"It's that madman Gaunt who lives there," Tom explained airily. "His son's completely insane, too."

Merope tore her eyes from the scene to see Morfin grinning at her. "It's her again, isn't it?" he hissed.

Both Ogden and Marvolo gave him strange looks - Ogden because he couldn't understand Parseltongue, and Marvolo because he didn't know what his son was talking about.

"Oh, lord!" Cecilia's voice exclaimed from outside. "Look, Tom! Is that a snake hanging on the door?"

"That would be the son," responded Tom grimly. "Don't look at it, dearest."

Morfin's eyes widened triumphantly at his sister. "You see?" he said gleefully. "He called her his dearest. Not you."

Their father turned his gaze on Merope, who reddened and backed away into the corner. "What does he mean, wench?" he demanded, switching to Parseltongue like his son. "Why would that disgusting Muggle call you his dearest?"

"She loves that Muggle," Morfin informed him, still grinning wildly, "she waits for him by the window and in the garden. Last night, they were talking to each other. He knows her name and she knows his."

Marvolo let out a horrendous shriek of fury. This bit of news, along with his headache and the invasion of Bob Ogden, did nothing to improve his mood. "My daughter! A Gaunt!" he cried. "A daughter of Slytherin, and she pines for a Muggle!?" He lost his temper and began charging towards the girl.

Ogden whipped out his wand. "Stupefy!" he yelled. The spell missed, but it was enough to stop Marvolo in his tracks. Unfortunately he changed direction and headed for Ogden.

"You meddling Mudblood-lover!" screamed Marvolo. "Get him, Morfin!" His son lumbered over to block the front door, grinning evilly at Ogden.

Merope, still crouching in her corner, felt the locket heat up against her skin. Save Ogden. He must get help.

Obediently she pulled out her wand and pointed it at her brother. "Petrificus totalus!" Morfin collapsed stiffly by the door. Jumping over his body, Ogden yanked it open and ran outside with Marvolo in pursuit.

"Get out! Get off my land!" screamed Marvolo, flapping his arms madly as he watched Ogden tear off down the path.

Tom and Cecilia were still on their horses in the lane, watching the entire scene with mingled horror and amusement.

Marvolo rounded on them. "What the bloody hell are you looking at!?" he shouted angrily.

Tom straightened indignantly. "You'll do well to address me with greater respect, Gaunt," he spoke coldly, looking down at the wild-eyed man.

"Hah!" Marvolo spat in the dirt near the horses' hooves and turned to see Merope standing in the doorway. The sight of her seemed to infuriate him even more. "Get back in the house!" he screamed, flying in her direction, his fists flailing madly at his sides.

Tom was off his horse in an instant, running after the old man. He grabbed Marvolo before the man could get to his daughter and wrestled him to the ground effortlessly. "Cecilia!" he shouted. "Go back to the house! I'll be there soon."

"Be careful, Tom!" Cecilia cried anxiously, but did as he told her and fled the scene.

Marvolo continued to struggle against Tom in vain. He was old and in poor condition and Tom, who was much younger and stronger, held him down without difficulty.

A small group of people came running down the lane led by Bob Ogden, pointing excitedly. "Here he is, boys! That's the man," he said triumphantly.

Two men hurried to relieve Tom of Marvolo and a third pushed past Merope to drag out her brother. "This is the perpetrator, sir?" he called.

"That's the one!" Ogden answered, and when father and son were lying beside each other in the grass, he looked down at them contemptuously. "You are hereby arrested for resisting orders and attacking official personnel. You are to come quietly and answer to these new charges, in addition to the ones you were accused of previously."

"You're police? From Great Hangleton?" interrupted Tom, looking over their odd clothing with a puzzled expression.

Ogden looked at him in surprise, and then understanding dawned on his face. "Police ... yes ..." He signaled for the men to march the two Gaunts further down the path and then followed them himself. They made a most interesting combination of people - the officials in their colorful, mismatched clothing, gripping the dazed Morfin and his wizened monkey of a father.

Merope watched them go with an indescribable feeling, a complicated mixture of regret and jubilance. All my life I've longed for freedom, she thought wryly, but never expected it to come like this.

Bob Ogden looked over his shoulder several times as though hoping to Apparate the minute Tom could no longer see them. When the group was finally out of sight, Tom turned back to Merope. "You'll be all right?" he asked. "Alone here, I mean."

"I think so," she replied hesitantly. "Thank you for helping me."

His expression was unreadable, but she thought she could see pity in the lines of his face. "If you need work," he began awkwardly, and not unkindly, "I'm sure we can find you a position at my parents' house."

The offer took her by surprise. She was tempted to accept - never in her wildest dreams had she imagined sharing his roof - but pride overcame her. It was just as her father had said: she was a daughter of the Gaunts, a daughter of Slytherin. Lifting her chin, she looked at him with clear eyes. "You're very kind," she stated, "but I must refuse. I'm quite able to care for myself."

Tom looked at her with some surprise. Clearing his throat, he said, "In any case, I came by to see the violin you spoke of. If I take a liking to it, I may buy it from you."

"Of course," she responded, moving aside. "Won't you ... won't you come in?"

He stepped inside the cottage and Merope was acutely aware of the stained, tattered armchair and the ashes strewn across the floor. She swallowed her embarrassment and climbed up to the attic. "Just a moment." Under a pile of old boxes, she located the violin case. A thick layer of dust covered the lid and she blew it off lightly, revealing the initials A.W.G. underneath. Tucking it under one arm, she returned to the ground floor and handed it over.

"This was your mother's, you said?" he inquired, carefully opening it.

"Yes. Annabelle Walker Gaunt," Merope said, watching him lift the instrument from its bed of green velvet. Despite years of neglect it looked almost new, gleaming a deep chestnut red in the light from the window.

Tom examined the fingerboard reverently. "Beautiful," he remarked, alternately plucking the strings and turning the pegs, tuning until the sound satisfied him.

Merope held the bow out to him shyly. "Will you?"

He took it obligingly and began to play.

Near the end of her life, Merope would often wonder whether that violin had magical qualities. The music that came from it and from Tom's capable hands was mesmerizing and thrilling and frightening in its beauty. It was like the first breath of air after plunging into deep water, like the first ray of sunshine after a long and terrible winter.

It seemed to affect Tom as well. When he stopped playing, he stared down at the instrument in astonishment. And when his eyes met Merope's, the look they exchanged was like the ghost of a kiss, breathless in its nonexistence.

"I'll pay whatever sum you ask," he spoke finally, his eyes never leaving hers.

"I don't want money," said Merope hurriedly, before she lost her courage. "But would you ... return each day and play for me?" There was a brief hesitation before he gave her the slightest of nods, and when he walked out the door and swung himself onto his horse, he glanced back at her. In that glance was an understanding, a conclusion that she herself had come to: there was now no going back.

Merope stood alone in the doorway long after he had gone, listening to the unfamiliar silence. She had never been so alone, and yet she had never felt so alive.

* * *

Tom had hoped, upon returning home, that he would be able to escape quietly into his rooms without delay. Unfortunately his mother had chosen that exact moment to stand at the foot of the grand staircase and scold a servant. She looked up when he entered and smiled, quite forgetting the teary maid in front of her.

"You've returned so soon. Tom, are you ill?" she asked anxiously, noting the pallor of his face and the glazed expression in his eyes.

"Quite well, Mother, but I think I'll have a lie-down before dinner," he answered.

Mrs. Riddle eyed the dusty violin case under his arm. "What is that dreadful thing? How dirty it is!" she cried, and rounded on the maid. "Gretchen, you useless thing! Since you can't do anything else correctly, you'll clean that for Master Tom!"

Tom shook his head. "No, Mother, I'll do it myself. I'm going upstairs now and don't wish to be disturbed." He hurried past her on the stairs.

"But Tom! Cecilia is waiting in the - " Her voice faded away as he climbed further and further up the stairs.

On the third floor, he proceeded to his rooms in the east wing with relief. His valet was ironing shirts in the small antechamber off the sitting room. "I'd like to be alone, Henry. Leave that," Tom ordered.

"As you wish, sir." Henry bowed and left immediately, closing the door behind him.

Tom dropped the violin case on a table and slumped onto a sofa nearby, rubbing his eyes. He hardly knew what was wrong with him. All he wanted to do was stay here and think. About what? He closed his eyes and the answer came immediately.

A pair of wide dark eyes gazing up at him. They were spaced far apart and almost looked in opposite directions, but they were so deep and soft that he was afraid of looking into them for long. Merope ... It was obvious that her poor excuse for a father had neglected her education, but despite that, her gaze was full of thought and intelligence. And how proudly she had refused his offer of employment! She had looked him in the eye like an equal! How utterly different she was from Cecilia!

Eyes still closed, Tom conjured up an image of his intended bride. Cecilia was a swan next to Merope, but her looks were almost too vibrant and overdone. Her lovely eyes were arrogant, her laughter was false and affected, and her expression was that of a vain, pampered girl. How could he have overlooked it before? How shallow she seemed in comparison...

Tom forced himself to sit up. Stop it! he thought harshly. Have you lost your senses? She's only a peasant girl!

His hands shaking, he poured himself a brandy and sipped without tasting it. The wedding, he told himself, think about the wedding. The church would be full of people dressed in their best, all trying to outdo each other. The pews would be decorated with roses. His parents would sit near the front and his mother would cry. Cecilia would walk down the aisle, her dress streaming behind her. The violins would be playing. Violins ... Unconsciously, Tom's eyes moved to the case on the table beside him. He groaned.

It was no use.

He put down the brandy and got up, forcing himself to go back downstairs. It would be the first time he went to Cecilia with such reluctance.

Chapter 7: The Love Potion
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Author's Notes: I own the plot, original characters, banner, and all chapter images throughout the story. Everything else is owned by J.K. Rowling. Please be aware that I have blended in my own original ideas with canon information and I'll be happy to discuss anything in a review or a PM.

This chapter is dedicated to everyone on my Favorite Authors list. You guys are beyond talented and inspiring.

Chapter Seven: The Love Potion
by Girldetective85

"Destiny is not a matter of chance. It is a matter of choice.
It is not a thing to be waited for, it is a thing to be achieved."

- William Jennings Bryan

Cecilia leaned her head against the carriage window, watching the familiar line of hawthorn trees roll by as they entered the village of Little Hangleton. Every now and then, she nodded and smiled as though she'd been listening to Rose's constant chatter. Occasionally she twisted the ring on her left hand, admiring how the princess-cut diamond sparkled in the sunlight, throwing a prism of burgundy and violet on the wall. If she moved her hand just so, she could cast a rainbow on the blank face of her maid dozing opposite her.

"Wouldn't you agree, Celia?" Rose awaited a response, her blue eyes wide and expectant.

Cecilia roused herself and looked across at her sister. "I beg your pardon?"

"You've been miles and miles away since we left home," the younger girl complained. "Are you all right?"

"I'm sorry, Rosie, I haven't been sleeping very well lately." Cecilia twisted her ring thoughtfully, remembering the dream that had haunted her for weeks. It was always the same: she saw herself wandering alone on the moor, searching for something. Whether she had lost it or it had been taken from her, she couldn't say. All she knew was that whatever it was, she desperately needed it. The dream always ended before she could find anything, and she would wake up disturbed and dissatisfied.

Rose reached across and patted her knee sympathetically. "Could it be nerves?" she suggested. "The wedding is only a month away. You're just tired out from all the planning."

Cecilia forced a smile. "You're probably right."

"Seeing Tom will help a great deal," predicted Rose.

"I think so, too," Cecilia agreed. If I manage to see him for more than five minutes at a time, she thought. Tom had been very distant of late. He was as kind and attentive as before, but his mind always seemed to be elsewhere. Lately he had taken to riding in the country even more, and twice Cecilia had called to find him out.

Today the sisters were traveling to Riddle Manor to stay for the weekend, having been invited by Mary Riddle. "Please come so that we might finalize the wedding plans. I would also be honored to have you both attend my little dinner party on Saturday evening," she had written in her note.

"I wonder if John will come tomorrow night." Rose looked sideways at her sister. "He still owes me a dance, you know. He promised me at your engagement party."

"I think he will. Mrs. Riddle is on good terms with the Haverings, even if Tom isn't. I hope we can avoid another big scene, though," responded Cecilia, watching the little shops and cottages pass by.

Rose leaned forward to look out of her window, the sunlight catching glints of gold in her hair. "Lawney Medicine Shoppe," she murmured. "I wonder what it sells?"

"The usual tonics and ointments, I think. Why?"

Her sister shook her head. "No particular reason," she replied with a little sigh.

"I think I'll like living in Little Hangleton," Cecilia said brightly, attempting to be cheerful. "It's a pretty town, but of course Tom and I will have the house in London if we ever grow tired of it."

The village scene had transformed into rolling countryside. They could see a stone church and a few snug cottages dotting a sea of red and gold October trees. The carriage came to a fork in the road and bore left to the hill on which the Riddles lived.

"Where does that other road lead?" Rose inquired, pointing to the right fork.

Cecilia looked out of her sister's window. "To Gaunt's Hill," she answered, thinking of the frequent rides she and Tom had taken together. She couldn't remember the last time he had invited her on a gallop through the countryside. She thought it might have been in early September, when they saw that frightening peasant who lived in the run-down cottage. "Tom said that it's named for the people who live there."

The carriage ascended the steep hill and finally pulled into the courtyard of Riddle Manor. Mary Riddle swept out of the entrance, flanked by a coterie of efficient servants.

"Good morning, Cecilia," she said warmly, kissing her future daughter-in-law. "Welcome, Rose. I'm glad you could both join me. Unfortunately my son has seen fit to go for another ride, despite the fact that you were arriving so shortly," she added, looking mildly flustered.

Cecilia struggled to hide her disappointment and a subtle yet rising feeling of alarm. Why does he keep avoiding me? She smiled weakly at her fiance's mother. "I'm sure it's something important." The two women linked arms and walked into the house, followed by Rose at a distance.

"Just between the two of us, my dear," Mrs. Riddle said in a low voice, "Tom has been acting so different lately. I don't know what ails the boy."

"He must be anxious about the wedding," Cecilia replied, remembering Rose's excuse. "November's just a month away now."

The older woman sighed and patted her arm. "Maybe you're right. I'm sure he'll be himself again on your honeymoon in Italy. In any case, he promised to be home for dinner."

The three women went into the sunny parlor for coffee. For one agonizing hour in which they discussed the final wedding plans, Cecilia had to pretend that she was calm and collected. Mrs. Riddle laid out photographs of Great Hangleton Abbey, the beautiful church where the ceremony was to be held, and Cecilia looked at them without really seeing them. Why would Tom go riding, knowing that I would come today? This is the third time I've called to find him out.

Rose was chattering about being maid of honor, and how the bridesmaids would wear pale blue and carry yellow roses. The reception, which included close friends and family only, would take place at Riddle Manor. Everything was to be decorated with roses and blue satin ribbon, to match the invitations.

Mrs. Riddle was raving about how beautiful the bridal gown was, and how generous of Cecilia's mother to have had it sent from Paris. It boasted a ten-foot embroidered silk train and a Chantilly lace veil. Cecilia nodded distractedly at the compliments, still deep in thought. I might have said or done something wrong the last time I was with him. Perhaps he has a mistress ... or maybe he's tired of me ...

A maid came into the parlor and Mrs. Riddle sighed exasperatedly. "Gretchen, how many times must I tell you? When there is company," she said slowly, in a tone usually reserved for children, "you wait until I ring the bell."

"Begging your pardon, ma'am, but I have a message for Miss Ingram from Master Tom." The maid presented Cecilia with a neatly folded note, bobbed a brief curtsy, and fled for her life.

Not caring what the others thought, Cecilia tore the note open and devoured it with her eyes.

Darling Cecilia,

I beg your forgiveness for my absence. I was called into town early this morning, but I am now at leisure for the entirety of the weekend.

I am on my way back from Great Hangleton, and I expect to return within half an hour. Will you meet me in the village? I have business at the bookshop and would gladly see you there. Rose may accompany you if she wishes to.

I am, as always,

Your loving Tom

She could feel the corners of her mouth turning up involuntarily, blossoming into a smile not unlike the one she'd worn when he proposed. "Tom will be in the village in half an hour," she explained, "and wants me to meet him there." She and Mrs. Riddle exchanged relieved glances.

"Get your shawl and go at once, dear," Mrs. Riddle advised. "I'll call for the carriage."

"I'd rather walk on such a lovely day, thank you," responded Cecilia, feeling as though she might walk to Glasgow if he asked her to. "And he said that Rose could come, if she likes," she added, turning to her sister.

"She'd much rather be here, I'm sure," interjected Mrs. Riddle, smiling at the younger girl. "Tom has new sheet music in the drawing room and she might like to try it on the piano."

Rose had already risen to her feet. "I'd love some fresh air ... I'll visit some of the shops I saw on the drive here. I'll be quite out of the way, I promise."

Within five minutes the sisters were walking down the hill, enjoying the crisp October air. Cecilia found herself humming merrily, giddy to see Tom. "See? I knew you'd feel better," Rose teased her. "Just the sight of his handwriting makes you starry-eyed with joy."

Cecilia laughed and squeezed her arm. "I wish I could see you happily engaged, too."

"There's plenty of time," she said dismissively. "I'm only eighteen."

"What about John?" Cecilia suggested, plucking a red leaf from a maple.

"What about him?" Rose asked casually, although her pulse quickened and her cheeks grew warm.

"He likes you very much. When Tom and I are married, he'll soon forget me." Cecilia looked seriously at her sister. "I think you feel much more for him than you say, Rosie."

Rose was silent. "Is it that obvious?" she asked finally, turning away bitterly. What did Cecilia know about hopeless love? Nothing! People loved her, and she could accept or reject their love as she wished. For her there were no barren dreams, no quiet tears on the pillow because the one she wanted could never want anyone but her sister. How many more moonless nights of pacing would Rose have to endure before she could convince herself that John would never think of her that way?

Touched by her sister's quiet grief, Cecilia took her arm awkwardly. "I'm sorry, Rose. I shouldn't have said anything."

"It's all right." Rose managed a smile. "I'm a silly girl, I should have given up hope long ago."

"I nearly gave up on Tom, and then he proposed. Don't throw your wishes away before you know what they can become," urged Cecilia. "Dance with him tomorrow night. Speak to him. Make yourself so familiar to him that he can't bear to have you absent."

"Or give him a love potion," Rose suggested half-jokingly.

"That's the spirit," said Cecilia with a smile. "Let's visit that apothecary you saw and ask for one."

Rose laughed. "What will they think? The gossips will spread the news that you have lost Tom's affections!"

The two girls reached the village long before Tom was expected to arrive and whiled away the time in different shops. They were greeted cordially at each store by the owners, who recognized them as the young squire's friends. The woman who tended the fan shop was especially obsequious.

Rose giggled when they left the store. "She curtsied like we were royalty!"

"We might as well be," Cecilia answered. "They revere the Squire and his acquaintances, no matter how much they gossip about us." She led the way toward the shop with the neatly hand-painted sign, noting the carefully arranged bottles in the window. "This is the medicine shop you saw, Rosie. Let's go in."

The two women inside immediately stopped talking when Rose and Cecilia entered the shop, and the little bell on the door tinkled into silence.

"Good afternoon," said one of them courteously. She was rosy and black-haired and evidently owned the shop. All of her movements were quick and efficient. "How might I help you ladies today?"

Rose noticed that she did not curtsy like the other shop owners. "My sister and I are browsing, thank you," she replied.

"If there's anything I can do, please let me know." The young woman smiled and returned to her friend, who was watching Cecilia with a strange expression on her face. She was much taller than her friend and slender with wide-set dark eyes. She seemed to sense Rose watching her and turned away.

"A house of your own, Bethe! How wonderful," she murmured, and the two women stood behind the counter talking in low eager voices.

Rose drew Cecilia aside. "Did you see how that tall girl stared at you when we entered?"

Cecilia darted a glance over her shoulder. "I think I know her," she said, surprised. "She looks like that girl who lives up on Gaunt's Hill. Tom says that her father and brother are mad. I saw them get arrested last month."

Her sister stared, shocked. "Goodness! Were they thieves?"

"Possibly worse," whispered Cecilia. "I think that girl might be mad, too. She used to spy on us whenever we rode past her cottage."

"I remember you, too, Miss Ingram," said a quiet voice behind them. They turned to see the girl herself, looking at them with her unusual eyes. "I am indeed Merope Gaunt of Gaunt's Hill."

Cecilia pressed her lips together tightly. "I don't recall including you in this conversation," she said coldly. "I was speaking to my sister."

"I'm sorry, Miss Ingram," the girl answered softly, her eyes fixed on Cecilia's face. "I was too bold."

"Indeed you were," Cecilia agreed, her eyes like ice. "We aren't acquainted. I advise you to attend to your own matters in future, and let alone other people's business."

The young woman who owned the shop spoke up. "Merope meant no harm, Miss," she said politely, though her eyes were angry. "It's difficult not to hear when other people's business is spoken aloud in such a small shop."

"It's all right, Bethe," the girl said. "I'll let you attend to these ladies and I'll see you when you visit tonight." She nodded to the sisters and promptly left the shop.

"Now," said Bethe with a disarming smile, "have you decided on what you want?"

"Not yet -" began Rose.

"Yes," Cecilia answered at the same time. "We're interested in buying a potion of ... captivating capabilities."

Bethe raised her eyebrows, her steady gaze moving from Cecilia to Rose and back again. "What sort of captivation?"

"Infatuation," said Cecilia.

"A love potion, then?" Bethe laughed. "If I had a potion that could induce true love, I'd be the wealthiest woman alive, Miss Ingram."

"You must have something in this shop," insisted Cecilia, gesturing at the shelves. "Isn't there anything to improve one's happiness? Nothing to at least promote the chance and the willingness to fall in love?"

The young woman hesitated. "I know of certain plants with qualities like these, but they're difficult to find," she said slowly. "I do have a draught that creates the sensation of contentment. If used excessively, however, it causes extreme giddiness."

"Giddiness?" echoed Cecilia, glancing at Rose, but her sister was intently looking out of the window onto the street. "Rose?"

Rose turned quickly. "Yes, that sounds lovely. We'll take some."

Bethe nodded. "Just a moment, please," she said, walking into the small storeroom at the back of the shop.

Rose took the opportunity to grab Cecilia's arm. "What is it?" Cecilia mouthed. Not daring to speak, Rose pointed out the window at a couple standing in the bookshop doorway across the street. It was none other than Tom Riddle and the girl called Merope. The two sisters exchanged incredulous glances that mirrored their thoughts. Why was Tom talking to her?

As they watched, Merope pointed across the street at their shop and Tom turned to look. He met Cecilia's eyes, still speaking to the girl, and then she disappeared into the bookshop. Tom turned and headed towards them. He came in smiling and kissed Cecilia on the cheek.

"Hello, darling," he greeted her warmly. "Glad you got my note. Hello, Rose." He looked around the shop cheerfully, as though nothing out of the ordinary had just happened. "What a lot of fiddle-faddle," he observed. "Look at this, Cecilia! A hair-growing tonic. I must remember to recommend it to Havering."

Rose gave him a look.

"Sorry to offend you, Rose," he said, grinning, and glanced at Cecilia. "You're very quiet today, my dear. Anything wrong?"

Cecilia gave him a tight smile and tucked her arm under his. "No," she said lightly.

Bethe came out of the back room with a small glass phial in her hand. She named her price and gave it to Cecilia, who paid for it and gave her a chilly nod of thanks.

"A beautifying toilette water?" Tom asked cheerily. Neither sister responded and he nodded to Bethe. "I say, how much does that hair-growing tonic cost?"

She looked at him warily. "It's not for sale, sir."

He shrugged and offered one arm each to Rose and Cecilia. "Too bad. Shall we walk, ladies?" They left and began walking back through the village. Rose trailed behind, looking listlessly into shop windows.

Cecilia turned to Tom. "Why were you talking to that girl, Tom?"

He frowned. "What girl?"

"I think you know which girl I mean," she responded softly. "The girl you spoke to in front of the bookshop. The girl who lives on the other hill."

Tom laughed. "Oh, the Gaunt girl! She greeted me, as do all of the villagers, and told me I'd find you across the street. She was trying to be helpful."

"I think she's uncommonly rude," Cecilia told him. "She put herself forward and intruded upon my conversation with Rose, you know."

"Did she?" He raised his eyebrows. "She doesn't seem like a girl who puts herself forward unless it's necessary."

Cecilia felt her anger rising and struggled to suppress it. "You seem to know quite a lot about this girl, Tom."

He stopped in his tracks and pulled his arm away. "And what is that supposed to mean?" he demanded, irritated. "Do I have to explain to you every time someone speaks to me? Every time one of the villagers crosses my path? Remember yourself, Cecilia."

She touched his arm, desperate to make amends. His stony gaze frightened her and she was reminded of her duty and of how much she had to lose. "I'm sorry, Tom. Please don't be angry with me, darling. I haven't been sleeping well, I'm tired and out of sorts. Forgive me."

Tom softened and tucked her arm under his again. "Of course I forgive you, sweetheart. But you need to take better care of yourself."

And even as she gave him her promise that she would, Cecilia knew that the restless dreams would not stop coming. She had been very close to discovering exactly what it was that she had lost.

A woman always knows when a man looks into her eyes and is thinking of someone else.

* * *

Later that night, Bethe appeared at the Gaunts' cottage with a large box in her arms. When Merope opened the door, she dropped the box at her feet and laughed. "Christmas is two months early!" she said. "Open it and see the things I've brought for your home."

Merope knelt down and looked through the contents eagerly. "Rugs and linen and candles and - tea!" She sat back on her heels, laughing. "Bethe! This is too much!"

"Not at all," her friend answered affectionately. "There's also some material in there for curtains, if you want them."

The girl hugged her impulsively, her eyes damp. "You're so good to me. Come in and sit down! Supper's almost ready."

The cottage had undergone many improvements in Marvolo and Morfin's month-long absence. Merope had spent a week scrubbing the floor and athough the wood was still decaying in many places, at least it looked tidy. There were colorful branches of autumn leaves all around the room, peeking out from old cracked vases.

As there was only one armchair, Merope had spread one of Bethe's rugs by the fire and they ate comfortably on the floor. They eagerly discussed some of the books that Merope had recently read. She had taken to borrowing volumes from the village bookshop. The owner, Mr. Redmond, had become accustomed to seeing the strange young girl in his shop and had taken a liking to her.

"He's very kind," Merope commented. "He makes suggestions whenever I visit and insists that I tell him what I thought of each book."

Bethe smiled. "Mr. Redmond's a good old soul. I'm happy that he likes you."

Merope nodded in agreement. "What I wouldn't give for a collection of books like his!"

Bethe gazed at her thoughtfully. "I have a proposition for you, Merope," she said suddenly. "I've been thinking of my grandmother's house. I think I should like to live there and move my shop to that village."

Merope stared at her. "You're leaving?" she cried.

"And taking you, you goose!" Bethe exclaimed. "That house is much too big for just me. You could come live with me and help me in the shop. There's a magnificent library that you'll have free rein over. My grandmother must have been a very well-read woman."

The girl clasped her hands together, dark eyes shining. "How wonderful!" But she sobered almost immediately. "But Bethe, I'd be leaving Tom."

Bethe looked seriously at her. "Merope, you need to forget him and he needs to forget you. You have your whole life ahead of you, and he is engaged to be married. I say this for your own good, dear. I love you like a sister."

"Are we having this conversation again?" Merope asked irritably. "I appreciate your concern and I love you like a sister, too. But I've said many times that I won't be dissuaded about this."

"I'm worried about you," Bethe persisted. "Even if there's a future for the two of you, it can't end happily! He'd undoubtedly be disinherited. Maybe he'd even resent you for taking away a life of comfort. At any rate, the village would shun you for stealing away the Squire's son."

"Then we will leave," Merope said simply. "Tom will take me away from here. He's unhappy, Bethe. He's unhappy with her, I can see it in his eyes."

Bethe lowered her voice. "Cecilia saw the two of you talking, Merope. I was watching her and her sister after you left the shop today. I think she suspects..."

"I'm glad!" cried Merope. "Let her suspect! Let her break off the engagement and set him free - that's all he wants!"

"You don't understand. She will not give him up without a fight," Bethe stated plainly. "Do you know why she was in my shop today?" She looked at Merope directly in the eyes. "She was buying a love potion."

Merope gasped. "A love potion? For Tom?"

"Who else?" Bethe shook her head. "I gave her a rejuvenating tonic. It won't work quite the way she wants it to. With any luck, she'll only find him in better spirits than she has ever known him to be in."

"But is it possible?" Merope asked in a hushed voice. "Is it possible to make an actual love potion? Do they exist?"

"Mostly in old wives' tales," answered Bethe. "I have little faith in them. There are herbs rumored to grant the power of love, but if there's one thing I know, it is that love can't be purchased in a bottle. Infatuation or obsession or lust, yes - but trapping someone like that is deception. True love is impossible to drink."

The girl moved closer, her intent eyes on Bethe. "But he would want her," she whispered. "It would work."

"Yes, but it would also affect the person who administered it," said Bethe softly. "It would lure her into a false sense of comfort. It would lead her to believe that he loved her truly." She looked sternly at her young friend. "It would destroy her, Merope. I know what you're thinking. Careless of yourself as you are, I won't stand by and watch you be ruined."

"I want the love potion," Merope said, so quietly that Bethe could barely hear her. "I don't care what it costs. I want it, and I want him. I'm very close now." She stood and walked over to the window, thinking of the hours and hours they had spent together.

Tom's visits had been almost completely silent at first. He came twice a week without fail, bringing her mother's violin with him and playing for a few hours before leaving. There had been a strange, awkward kind of companionship between them. They were strangers from two different worlds who knew next to nothing about one another, yet week after week they shared these quiet interludes beneath the same roof.

Uneasiness had been inevitable at first, partly because of Merope's constant fear that her father would return and discover them. This fear had vanished with the arrival of a letter from Azkaban, informing her of Marvolo's six-month sentence; her brother would serve three years.

Then there had been her anxiety about actually spending time with someone she'd hopelessly worshipped for years, someone she'd never imagined would even want to be near her. Yet he always came at the appointed time. Surely that meant something? She tossed and turned at night, overjoyed yet incredulous, not daring to hope that he came for any other reason than to pay for the violin.

But what hold did she have over him? Surely he came of his own free will. And when they began to talk more, when he told her things about himself, surely he must have wanted to do so. He told her things she assumed he'd never told anyone before: his parents' rocky marriage, his dreams of becoming a musician that his father had discouraged, and his mother alternately idolizing him and pressuring him to be the best at everything he did. In turn, Merope confessed her dreams of finding her mother and her most cherished wish of traveling the world someday. They poured words into each other, grateful to find a sympathetic listener in the most unexpected of friendships.

But Merope hardly dared to believe that Bethe's prophecy was coming true. Tom showed no signs of love towards her, made no overtures of romance, gave off no other impression than that he enjoyed her company. But does not love often begin with friendship? she would ask herself. For a while, it had seemed to be enough, but she had always known that it wouldn't be enough. She wanted his heart and finally, here was a way to get it. A potion to make him want her as badly as she wanted him. As for true love - that would come later, she was sure of it.

When she finally turned around, the shadows fell upon her face and Bethe could only see the glittering of her eyes. "For the first time in my life, I can have something I want more than anything. Will you deny me this?"

Bethe sat in silence, watching her with a cold foreboding that enveloped her heart.

"Give me a potion, Bethe. A genuine love potion, unlike what you gave Cecilia." It was a command, not a request.

"I have said and done all I can. I've warned you repeatedly. Don't blame me when what I've said comes to pass," Bethe replied gravely. "Do you acknowledge this?"

There was no hesitation. "I do."

Bethe gave a deep sigh and rose to leave. "I'll think about it, Merope." And pray for you, she added silently.

For she understood that there is no going back when autumn becomes winter. There is no return to the sky for the rain that falls, no restoration of the breath that leaves the body. Such is the nature of love that a choice once made cannot easily be undone, and Merope had chosen.

* * *

Mary Riddle's dinner party on Saturday evening was a success. She had invited twenty of her most intimate friends, a most interesting group of people, worldly, educated, and well-traveled. The menu had been chosen accordingly and offered a splendid array of exotic and delicious foods to whet the appetite. The dinner table looked beautiful, decorated with candles and autumn flowers. The women all looked pretty, especially Cecilia in her blue satin dress. Amidst all of this elegance, fine cuisine, and scintillating conversation, a man should have been content just to be there.

Tom would have given anything to be far away just now.

He sipped his wine restlessly, trying not to look at the clock. His father was away on business and Tom had been obliged to replace him at the head of the table. It would be difficult to escape tonight.

"Will you be in Rome on your honeymoon, Tom?" inquired Mr. Davenport. "See the Trevi Fountain - I insist upon it. Such a work of beauty should not escape notice."

Endeavoring to regain his thoughts, Tom was slow to answer and Cecilia came to his rescue. "We're spending a week in Rome," she responded. "I'd love to see the fountain."

"Of course we must go," Tom agreed.

"Isn't that the fountain that guarantees luck when you toss in a coin?" ventured Cecilia.

Mr. Davenport inclined his head, smiling. "Offering coins to the Trevi is said to promise good fortune as well as a return to Rome someday."

"Now there's a clever ploy to ensnare travelers, if ever I heard one!" exclaimed John Havering, who sat a few seats away. "Make them think they court fame and fortune, when in reality all they will have are lighter pockets." Everyone laughed politely, in the manner of people humoring a wayward child or an intoxicated person. In John's case it was the latter, for he had been joking and laughing much too loudly all evening. The keen observer would notice Mrs. Riddle subtly giving orders that he only receive water after finishing his brandy. Also of notice was the reddened face of Rose Ingram, who sat beside the man in question.

Tom, who had been infuriated by John's presence at the engagement party, was completely ignoring him tonight. "We'll mostly be staying in Genoa, but we'll also go to Venice," he explained. "Cecilia wanted to see the Basilica there."

"The City of Bridges," spoke an elderly countess. "You must see the Bridge of Sighs. It is so named because it was supposedly the last thing a man would see before being imprisoned in the jail nearby."

"That too has a legend," Mr. Davenport said. "The couple who sits beneath shall be eternally bound by love."

The image strongly reminded Tom of Merope, who would undoubtedly adore hearing such a sentimental legend. She'd been fascinated with Italy ever since she read a love story set in Verona, and even dreamed of visiting one day.

Mrs. Riddle looked up from her seat and smiled. "How romantic, and how suitable for a young pair of lovers."

"Charming story," agreed John enthusiastically. He turned to Rose. "Don't you wish we had a bridge like that nearby?"

Rose blushed. "I think these bridges would lose their novelty if they were found everywhere."

"But everyone would be in love," John exclaimed. "Love wouldn't be the sole possession of, say, Miss Ingram there. It could be yours, it could be mine - or both."

Mrs. Hamlin, the doctor's wife, eyed them curiously. "I declare ... are we to expect another wedding soon after Tom's?"

John continued on blissfully. "Maybe love would find even Tom Riddle, who would undoubtedly walk to his wedding with a lighter heart." There was silence all around the table, but he didn't seem to notice. "Yes, a bridge would be the very thing he needs."

All eyes turned towards Tom to see what he would do. To the surprise of all - and the disappointment of some - he remained calm, as though he hadn't heard. He merely set down his fork and looked around the table. "Gentlemen? Shall we retire to the library for cigars?"

Mrs. Riddle smiled with relief and stood up, leading the ladies to the drawing-room where they would take fruit and coffee. The men followed Tom further down the hall and into the expansive library, where the butler waited with brandy and cigars. The guests sat in comfortable leather chairs, some already beginning spirited discussions on politics.

Tom walked over to the window that looked out on the front lawn. From here he could see the hill sweeping out before him and below that, the little lights of the village, cheerful beacons in a sea of dark blue. The moon was almost full and glowed intensely. To the left he could see the path to Gaunt's Hill. He imagined the little cottage that lay in the thicket of trees, light streaming from the windows. Merope would be lying on the rug before the hearth, a book spread open in front of her, the firelight reflecting in her eyes. It was a cheerful scene and he half smiled to himself. A sudden powerful longing to talk to her overcame him.

I musn't, he reprimanded himself. He knew that they would soon be expected to join the ladies for cards and music. He would be expected... Tom thought of the way Cecilia had questioned him about Merope the day before. Why should I feel defensive about Merope? he wondered. I will be Squire after Father and what I do is my business. Why shouldn't I be friends with whomever I choose? He wasn't ashamed and yet, what was this strange feeling? Guilt? Betrayal? But I'm not betraying Cecilia, he argued. My behavior towards Merope is above reproach at all times. Yet what was this pull he felt for her, this longing to see her when they were apart? Why could he talk to her with such ease, why confess things he'd never even dreamed of telling Cecilia? It was nothing he'd ever felt for his fiancee, even before he met Merope.

Tom had to make a decision. A servant had already come to the library to bring them to the ladies. He followed the others, making half-hearted replies to their remarks. He had to choose.

He chose.

"Excuse me. I've forgotten something in my room," he said aloud, and walked right past the drawing-room door.

Sitting beside her sister, Cecilia continued speaking to the other guests and waited patiently for Tom to come into the room.

She waited all night.

* * *

One bright Tuesday morning, about a week later, Merope opened her door to find a small basket covered in flannel. Inside was a cryptic message written in Bethe's curly script.

I do what I do for love, and I know that you are doing the same. It is the only thing any of us can hope for.

She turned the note over eagerly. It said simply:

One drop in a glass, daily without fail.

Her heart beating furiously, Merope unwrapped the flannel to find two glass phials full of a deep amber liquid, the color of sunlight on leaves. She pressed the cool glass to her lips, tears streaming down her face. With these phials Bethe had given her blessing, that dear, dear friend who loved her like a sister. How could Merope ever repay her?

She hadn't forgotten Bethe's warning. So Tom wouldn't really love her, but the interest he already felt would deepen. He wouldn't be able to imagine life without her, and a life with him was the only thing she wanted. Maybe he would come to love her in time. A joyful, insane happiness burst in her breast. She wanted to do something crazy, to announce it to the world. She imagined running down to the village and shouting it in the streets, and the thought made her chuckle. She imagined knocking on the door of Riddle Manor and throwing herself into Tom's arms, all the while watching Cecilia's livid face over his shoulder, and that made her laugh even harder.

She could barely concentrate on breakfast; she'd never been so completely happy in her entire life. Was this how Cinderella had felt in that fairy tale? Had she felt as overwhelmed with love when she saw her prince hold out her glass slipper? I highly doubt it, Merope thought contentedly, walking out to the water pump in the garden to fill her pitcher.

Inside the house, she poured the fresh cool water into a tall glass.

Boil the water first.

She jumped in surprise and looked down at her locket. "Boil it?" she murmured.

The more ardent the flame, the more flame in the ardor.

Obediently she poured the water into a pot and lit the stove. She had learned not to question the locket's instructions because after Bethe, it was her dearest friend. Didn't a friend have one's best interests in mind? And the locket was certainly considerate of Merope's best interests.

Lemon and thyme to secure lust for all time.

She went to the cupboard and looked through the last of her spices, pulling out a withered lemon and a few sprigs of thyme. "Bethe didn't mention these things in her instructions."

Bethe doesn't know all, as I do. Have I ever been wrong?

The locket fell silent. When the water boiled, Merope poured it back into the glass and added the two ingredients. Then, uncapping one of the phials, she held the dropper over the glass. One amber bead dangled from the tip and for one moment, she saw her own reflection and her surroundings inside it. A mirror of the world in one tiny droplet. When it fell into the water, it barely disturbed the surface and diffused immediately, her secret accomplice floating in a pool of innocence.

There was a knock at the door.

"Come in," she called, trying to calm her pounding heart when she heard his footsteps. She turned to see him close the door, his eyes resting on hers. "Would you like something hot to drink?"

Tom smiled faintly and set his violin case down on the floor. "It's cold out there," he confessed. "Soon Apollo will have to come in here with me."

She laughed and handed him the glass. "Here."

"Thank you, Merope." He accepted it gratefully and breathed in the steam, fragrant with lemon. Then, holding it with one hand, he lifted it to his lips and drank deeply.

Chapter 8: Outside Looking In
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Author's Notes: I own the plot, original characters, banner, and all chapter images throughout the story. Everything else is owned by J.K. Rowling. Please be aware that I have blended in my own original ideas with canon information and I'll be happy to discuss anything in a review or a PM.

Chapter Eight: Outside Looking In
by Girldetective85

"Where you used to be, there is a hole in the world which I find myself
constantly walking around in the daytime, and falling into at night."
- Edna St. Vincent Millay

Merope took the empty glass from Tom and set it by the stove, feeling his eyes on her all the while. "How's your family?" she asked shyly. "Has your father returned from business?"

"Yes, unfortunately for Mother. But he plans on leaving again soon. Sometimes I suspect he has more than just business to worry about." He smiled at her confusion. "I mean that he might have a mistress."

"I'm sorry," she said awkwardly.

Tom waved away her sympathy. "My parents are happiest when separated and are better people for it. Besides, if the old man can find romance, there's hope for all of us."

Merope chuckled. "What a horrible thing to say!"

"I'd say worse just to hear you laugh," he replied, smiling. "You couldn't imagine how I long to be here when I'm away."

She blushed and looked away. She couldn't help wondering whether he meant it or whether the love potion was already taking effect. "Surely not. If I lived in a grand house like yours, I'd never want to leave."

Tom regarded her thoughtfully. "I suppose we all want what we can't have. I think it would be nice to have a cottage instead of a big drafty house."

Merope raised her eyebrows. "And how would you survive? Could you care for yourself without a valet and a housekeeper?"

"You're right," he admitted, "it would be hopeless. Maybe I could still have them and make them sleep on the doorstep."

"Or in the garden with Apollo," she suggested. They both laughed and then fell silent, each immersed in their own thoughts. "How would Miss Ingram feel about living in a cottage?" she asked offhandedly.

"She'd be scandalized at the very idea and call off the wedding," Tom responded, shaking his head. "Cecilia detests anything old or ugly."

"She's very beautiful," Merope said wistfully, "so it isn't surprising that she likes beautiful things."

"Polite, too," added Tom. "She would never intrude upon a stranger's conversation the way you did last week."

Merope blushed. "Miss Ingram was speculating on my identity and I merely confirmed her suspicions," she said defensively, and then realized he was teasing. "Won't you ever let me forget that incident?"

"Never," he affirmed. "You're so amusing to tease, I can't help myself." He stood beside her, staring out the window. A cold rain had begun to fall and the wind was blowing away the late October leaves. Tom watched the swirl of red and gold dancing off the trees and sighed. "As much as I love England, I've always felt like escaping sometime. Couldn't you just see me in Italy with a shed by the sea, playing music in the streets for a living?"

She laughed, thrilled at his very nearness. "Actually, I could."

Tom smiled. "I thought so. Everyone else is appalled when I say that."

"Because they're afraid to dream," she told him, leaning her head on the cupboard. "They don't know what it's like to subsist on dreams. I'd give anything to go, too."

"Then we'll go," Tom said boldly. "We can see the fountain and the bridge and the palace ... everything we spoke of."

"Don't tease, Tom," she protested.

"I wasn't teasing! I think we should go."

Merope stared at him. "But I - we can't. Tom, don't say such things."

"Why not?" he asked. "Why shouldn't you go with me, if you want to more than anything? Don't you?"

Merope stared into the depths of his eyes, at her own reflection in the dangerous green-hazel. "Well ... yes," she whispered.

How their lips met, she couldn't say; all she knew was that suddenly she was in his arms, returning his kiss with all that she had. A fiery warmth seeped from the top of her head to the tips of her toes. The world fell away, and in that moment she would have given her soul to make it last forever. They broke apart, gasping for air, and then he kissed her again fiercely. She clung to him like a drowning woman swept from the sea. They might as well have been the only two people left on Earth.

They broke apart again, still standing close together, reluctant to leave each other's arms.

Merope looked up into his gentle face, her heart aching with love. It was true, it was all coming true: everything she'd ever dreamed of in her years of torment; everything she'd ever wished for in the darkness of the attic, tears freezing on her face. Her castle in the sky had fallen within reach, and her knight in shining armor stood right in front of her. One word, and he'd take her away with him.

Tom Riddle was, at last, completely in her power.

It was a frightening feeling like the sensation of falling from a great height. She hid her face against his chest, overwhelmed by sheer giddiness. I'm going to steal this man, she thought. I'm going to take him from his home, his parents, the other woman who loves him... Tom's heart thumped comfortingly in her ear; that too was now hers, not Cecilia's. She would never feel his kiss or watch the sun rise and set in his arms. Could this really be happening?

"Tom," Merope whispered, "is your heart truly free? You're supposed to marry Cecilia. You're supposed to be with her."

He touched her face so tenderly that tears sprang into her eyes. "The only place I'm supposed to be," he said softly, "is wherever you are."

She began crying in earnest and he laughed and kissed her and kissed her and kissed her...

* * *

The sky was still dark when the young master of Riddle Manor went quietly down into the stables. He came out on horseback and rode down the hill without a backward glance. If he hadn't, he would have seen a rider on a gray horse in silent pursuit.

Cecilia waited until Tom had reached the road before going after him. She gripped the reins with a sure hand and followed her quarry through the silvery mist. The fork was coming up ahead and she prayed Tom would take the road into the village.

He did not.

Through the fog, Cecilia could see the stallion taking the left fork to Gaunt's Hill. Lips grimly set, she continued on while maintaining a safe distance behind, heart pounding in time to her horse's hoofbeats.

Tom's frequent absences and cool manner had made every hour an excruciating torture. Rose had found her crying the day before and had demanded to know why. Cecilia had lied, of course. How could she tell her that Tom was lost forever? How could she confess her suspicions that he loved another, that she was now a burden to be forgotten?

Cecilia had masked her fears with a smile, accepting Tom's cold shoulder with forced cheer. He'd been confined to the house last night by his mother, who had insisted that he join them for cards after dinner. Cecilia had laughed and chatted all through the game, but when everyone retired for the night, she had held a sleepless vigil by her bedroom window. The moment Tom left the house, she had gone after him in an instant.

Now she angrily wiped away her tears and urged her horse up the crest of the hill. Just before she knew the run-down little cottage would appear, she dismounted and led her horse deep into the trees. Tying the mare to a barren oak, she crept through the thicket of bushes.

I'll look at the front yard, and Apollo will not be there. Please let Apollo not be there, please, please...

Whether he was there or not, Cecilia never noticed. She heard murmuring voices and when she peered through the bushes, she saw them standing on the doorstep. They hadn't even bothered to go inside, but stood kissing in the misty chill without a care in the world. She watched as Tom, her own beloved Tom, lower his head and whisper something in the girl's ear. The girl smiled and leaned her head on his shoulder. He kissed the top of her head and they walked into the house together, shutting the door behind them.

Cecilia felt strangely calm. She had been grasping a prickly branch so hard that blood smeared her palm, but she wiped it away and advanced cautiously toward the cottage. Through the window she could see Tom standing with his back to her and the girl pouring something into a glass. She handed it to Tom and talked and smiled, completely unaware that her rival was watching her from outside.

There is always a strange fascination for the other woman in a dying relationship, a painful and obsessive curiosity suffered by the one who has been replaced. Cecilia felt it more than ever as she scrutinized the girl's face, hair, and clothing. A peasant in every possible way, she thought disdainfully, looking at her cheap dress and ragged apron. But nothing could console her when she saw the other girl's warm, genuine smile and the look that Tom gave her in return.

The girl settled into a chair before the fireplace, opened a book, and began to read aloud while Tom sat at her feet, his head against her knee and his eyes closed.

Cecilia had seen enough. She hurried away from the window, feeling as though the throbbing pain pulsating through her head would split it in two. She located her horse and galloped back to Riddle Manor at full speed. In her room on the second floor, she grabbed ink and paper and scribbled a few words by the dim light from the window. She sealed the note and rushed back downstairs. A servant boy was sleeping by the kitchen stairs and she shook him awake. "Do you know Greenwood Park, four miles from here? Good. Bring this letter there at once," she commanded.

"Y-yes, miss," stammered the boy, "but begging your pardon, miss, who am I to say it's for?"

"Mr. John Havering."

The boy obediently left the house. She could see him sprinting down the hill with the letter clutched in one hand. Satisfied, Cecilia returned to her room and collapsed on her bed in a swoon of pure exhaustion.

* * *

Bethe stood in a great cathedral, bathed in the wintry light that filtered through the stained-glass windows. There was a hushed feeling in the air, which smelled strongly of roses. The pews were empty but for a couple seated in front, both dressed in the plain garb of servants. Their attention was on the altar and when Bethe followed their gaze, she saw a priest resplendent in snowy robes, reading aloud from a gilded prayer book. A young couple stood facing him with their hands joined.

" - gathered here in the presence of these witnesses to join this man and this woman in blessed matrimony; it is a state to be commended by all men and therefore is not to be entered lightly..."

Bethe took a seat behind the only two witnesses and gazed at the couple's tightly joined hands, at the bride's dark hair beneath her simple white veil.

" ... marriage is the unity of two minds, two hearts, and two souls; it is a sacred and eternal promise carried to the grave and beyond..."

The priest spoke a few more words and then the couple recited their vows. The bride placed a ring on her groom's finger and they kissed.

"Where is the bride's ring?" cried Bethe, rising to her feet, but no one could hear her.

Suddenly she was out of the cathedral, running on grass in the sunshine. There was a cottage that faced the sea and Bethe hurried inside without knocking. The groom was there overturning tables and chairs, searching frantically for something.

"Are you looking for the ring?" she asked him.

"No, for water," he answered. "Have you seen any?"

"Yes, the ocean is just outside," she told him, but when they went out, the sea had disappeared and in its place was an endless desert.

The groom was dying of thirst. "Water, I must have water - can't you see I'll die without it?!"

"You can't die!" Bethe shouted. "Your wife must have taken the water with her for the flower. Go find her!"

"I can't, I can't," moaned the groom, "I've looked everywhere and she's gone ... I know of no such flower."

Bethe pointed at a small yellow wildflower in the grass which grew taller and taller. It began wilting and rotting in the hot sun, and when the groom turned his face away, it grew spines the size of swords and began stabbing him ... if there was no water to be had, then blood would do...

Bethe awoke with a violent start, still seeing blood everywhere. She looked in relief at the white walls and large sunny window of her bedroom. With a deep breath, she got out of bed and went to splash her face at the basin, welcoming the ice-cold water on her feverish skin. Her reflection in the mirror looked pale, peaky, frightened.

"It was just a dream," she whispered, "only a dream..."

* * *

One afternoon, Merope walked down to the village to see Bethe. They hadn't seen each other for almost two weeks and she still meant to thank her for the potion. When she arrived at the shop, Bethe was busy with a customer.

"It's true," the thin, gray-haired woman was saying in a no-nonsense voice. "Both of them were dry-eyed at her funeral. It wouldn't surprise me if they waited for her to die so they could inherit..."

"That's an awful thing to say, Mrs. Johnson," said Bethe dryly, handing her the package.

The customer waved her hand dismissively. "Everyone was thinking it," she retorted. "Oh, and did you hear? They say that the wedding between young Master Riddle and his fiancee may never happen!"

Merope held her breath and stared.

Mrs. Johnson nodded emphatically at Bethe, whose eyes darted to Merope. "He's getting tired of her, the prim little fine miss that she is. Never a civil word to anyone in the village, just like Lady Riddle," she said sarcastically.

"They were here in my shop not long ago," Bethe remarked, glancing at Merope again.

"Well, he won't be likely to go anywhere with her again," the woman answered in a satisfied tone. "That must have been the day Lucy Shepherd saw them arguing in the street. She said Miss Ingram seemed to be nagging Master Tom about something, and then he stopped and looked very grave. He said something in a low voice and then they walked back up to the manor."

"How interesting," Bethe said softly.

"Anyway, they haven't been seen together since. Mark that how you will, my dear." The old woman raised her eyebrows, deposited her purchases into her basket, and turned to go. She stared at Merope as she walked by. "Good afternoon."

"So," Bethe remarked when they were alone, "you've finally managed to remember my existence?"

"Dear Bethe, forgive me for not coming sooner," Merope pleaded. "I should've thanked you the day I received the potion."

"I guess it's working, then?"

"It is. How can I ever thank you?" Merope hugged her friend. "I will never, ever forget that you were responsible for my happiness."

Bethe gave her a smile that didn't reach her eyes. "I'm glad you're happy, at the very least. He treats you well?"

"He's an angel and more than I could ever have hoped for," the younger girl said rapturously.

"So, he has jilted Cecilia," Bethe said with a little sigh. "She did seem very cross at him the day he spoke to you."

"Well, no," Merope said slowly, "they're still engaged for now. If she knows anything, it isn't because he has told her."

Bethe stared at her in shock. "You can't be serious!" she exclaimed. "What is the fool waiting for? Why not free the girl and put her out of her misery, instead of stringing her along like a puppet?"

"These things take time, Bethe," Merope explained. "Tom needs to go about it tactfully to cause the least possible pain."

"Is he waiting for her to break it off herself? Doing nothing is cowardice, not tact." Bethe eyed her friend disapprovingly. "He's stringing you along too, Merope, if he pays his attentions to you yet maintains his engagement to another woman..."

"He'll break it soon!" Merope insisted. "He wants me to go to Italy with him. He cares for me, he wants to marry me. He lov -" She broke off abruptly.

"He loves you?" Bethe finished, but her friend did not reply. "Is that what you were about to say?"

Merope sighed. "I don't understand why you're determined to hate him. If he seems arrogant and condescending, he has been taught to be that way. He has a good heart, Bethe."

"I am not determined to hate him," she protested, "I just think that you deserve better. You deserve a man who will love you..."

"Which he does!" cried Merope.

"How do you know?" Bethe demanded, but the girl was silent. "I warned you but you wouldn't listen. I said he would be attached to you, infatuated and obsessed, but that the potion works both ways. You're binding yourself to something false. If you don't remember that, you'll fall into the trap you created yourself."

"I have created no such thing," snapped Merope, angry now. "I told you that he cares for me, that he'll break off his engagement. If you don't believe me ... if you think this is a lie -"

"Merope. Everything about this is a lie," said Bethe exasperatedly. "Surely you've realized that by now?"

"If anyone has created this lie and this trap that you speak of," Merope responded scathingly, "it's you, Bethe! You did this for me, you made everything possible! For heaven's sake, why can't you just be happy for me?"

Bethe sighed and for the first time, Merope noticed how pale and tired she looked. "How can I be? I just helped a friend turn her face from reason to follow a dream that doesn't exist."

"I'm tired of your guilt and your misgivings," the younger girl retorted. "All you've done is made it possible for me to be with the one I love. For that, I am eternally grateful. But if you refuse to be happy for me, then you are no friend of mine."

Merope turned on her heel and left the shop. It was raining again and the cobblestones were slippery from the icy drizzle. So intent was she to return home that she nearly ran into a horse that was galloping by.

"Be careful, miss!" the young man on the horse called over his shoulder, but continued tearing on through the village.

"Are you all right, dear?" asked a rosy fat woman under a nearby umbrella, chatting with Mrs. Johnson. "That John Havering and his breakneck riding will kill somebody one day. Where's he riding to like the wind, pray?"

Merope only smiled weakly in response and continued on her way home. She had much else to think of.

* * *

"Will this do, sir?"

Tom examined the bouquet that the gardener held out to him. "Very good," he answered, taking the bunch of scarlet roses. "Thank you, Wilkins, you can leave." He brought the flowers to his nose and inhaled the heady fragrance of summer, even as he looked out through the glass walls at a cold and rainy October afternoon. He always loved being in the conservatory, surrounded by warmth and brilliant flowers and separated from rain or snow by a thick sheet of glass.

As soon as I escape from tea, he decided, I'll run and give these to Merope.

He walked down the row of plants with a half-smile on his face. What was it about Merope that enchanted him so, that made him shy like a schoolboy and giddy as a drunkard all at once? No woman had ever bewitched him like this.

With the double blessing of good looks and a rich father, Tom had never lacked female admiration. There had been many pretty maids and village girls in his past, but they'd never been anything more than entertainment. Cecilia knew nothing of them and even if she did, she wouldn't confront him. It was Tom's birthright to do what he wished and the hell with everyone else.

But what he felt for Merope was completely different. Everything paled in comparison and even his happiest days with Cecilia were nothing to the stolen hours he had with Merope. It had happened so suddenly that it took his breath away. How quickly he'd gone from merely enjoying her company to worshiping the ground she walked on! He forgot everything and everyone else when he was with her, and when he wasn't, he daydreamed about being back again. She was as much a part of him as his right arm, whereas Cecilia ...

With a twinge of guilt, Tom wondered why Cecilia was always staying at Riddle Manor lately. Was it because she wanted to watch him? But how could she possibly know about Merope? She saw us talking that day in the village and asked me why...

He looked out at the rain, thinking. If she had suspicions, he'd have to confirm them soon. The wedding was only two weeks away. He knew that canceling would have disastrous results: people would gossip, his father would be furious, his mother would go into hysterics. But most of all he would regret hurting Cecilia, who loved him so faithfully. I have no choice, he tried to convince himself. I can't marry one woman when my heart belongs to another.

"I have to tell her soon," he muttered aloud, "very soon..."

As he looked out at the rain-soaked lawn, Tom spotted a man running across to the shelter of a grove of trees. The man stood there, half-hidden by the heavy, wet branches. The wind ruffled the tree branches, revealing a coral parasol - Cecilia's parasol. What was she doing in the rain and who was with her? Tom watched curiously as the man bent his head under the parasol, talking, and then the tree branches fell back into place and hid them.

Shaking his head in confusion, Tom went through the passage back into the house. In the entrance hall, he found Chadworth polishing the pewter, looking slightly distressed. "Sir, I meant to go and find you," he began, "but the gentleman wouldn't listen - he asked for Miss Ingram and ran out without waiting to greet you..."

"Who asked for Miss Ingram?"

"... I knew you wouldn't be pleased, sir, not at all and I told the young man so -"

"Who is it?" Tom demanded impatiently.

"Mr. John Havering, sir," the butler said miserably. "He came a few minutes ago, knocked on the door, and asked for Miss Ingram. I told him the young lady had gone walking in the grove and he ran out without paying his respects to you or your parents, sir."

Tom raised his eyebrows. "What in the world does he want with Cecilia? And so urgently?"

Chadworth shook his head. "I'm sure I don't know, sir."

"I think I'll go see what this is all about," Tom said thoughtfully, taking an umbrella and walking outside. Raindrops pattered lightly on the black silk. He could now clearly see John and Cecilia standing together in the grove of trees. John was talking energetically, gesturing with his hands, and Cecilia was shaking her head. Tom watched as John lowered his head beneath the parasol again, speaking in a quieter voice, and then he leaned forward and kissed her.

Tom found himself smiling involuntarily. All this time I've been kicking myself for deceiving Cecilia, and here I find her doing the same to me. "Hello there!" he called. John jumped in surprise and tensed at the sight of his rival, while Cecilia gazed at him with an inscrutable expression. "I don't remember issuing an invitation for you to visit, Havering."

John opened his mouth to speak, but Cecilia laid a hand on his arm to silence him. "Please don't be angry, Tom ..." she began.

"Oh, I'm not angry," said Tom affably.

John and Cecilia exchanged glances. "You - you aren't?" she quavered.

Tom glanced from one to the other with curiosity. "Of course not, darling. I just want to know how long this little love affair has been going on?"

"I've loved Cecilia for years, as you well know, Riddle," John said hotly. "I care for her and I will not stand by and watch you use her. If you thought about anyone else but yourself, maybe you would've seen that she was unhappy."

Tom looked at Cecilia, who flushed and tightened her grip on the parasol. "Unhappy?" he repeated.

She sighed and closed her eyes. "Please go, John," she murmured, "I need to speak to Tom alone." She touched the sleeve of John's coat gently. "Thank you for coming today. You'll hear from me soon." John, who had been about to protest, obediently left with a parting glare for Tom.

"Cecilia, what is the meaning of all this?" questioned Tom. "Did you invite Havering here?"

She looked into his eyes with a courage he'd never seen in her. "Yes, Tom. I sent him a message this morning to tell him that I was deeply unhappy and I asked him to come here. I went walking in the grove so that he'd join me, knowing you would see us from the conservatory."

He frowned slightly. "You planned for me to witness your little tryst? Why? I'm afraid you don't understand the idea of a secret love affair, Cecilia," he remarked lightly.

"Though you obviously do," she retorted. "Don't patronize me. Do you honestly think that I'm as deaf and dumb as I pretend to be? You think I don't know where you've been going?" She blinked away tears and took a deep breath, struggling for calm. "Tom," she said in a quieter voice, "however lightly you have treated me, I have never once faltered in my love for you. I understand that men may do whatever they wish when it comes to women. They may have wives and they may have mistresses - yes, I do know of mistresses..."

"Cecilia -"

"Let me speak!" she cried. "I don't care that you're infatuated with this girl. Do what you like. But Tom, however much I love you, I can never be anything but first in my husband's heart. Tell me this is just an infatuation, and we'll never speak of this again."

Tom was silent.

"Tell me that this is nothing more -" Cecilia dropped her parasol and clutched at his coat desperately. "Tell me it's just an infatuation! Say it!" she cried.

He looked down at her tearful face, aching with pity. "I - I can't, Cecilia," he murmured. "I can't. I love her."

She gazed at him in shock and disbelief. "Then - then this is over," she whispered. "We're done, you and I."

Tom put his arms around her and hugged her tightly, feeling her body shake with ragged sobs. "I'm so sorry, Cecilia. I should have told you as soon as it happened," he said regretfully. "I should have done so many things differently. Listen to me. You've done nothing to be blamed. I'll make all the announcements. I'll take full responsibility, do you understand? You have nothing to fear." He held her at arm's length and dug into his pocket for a handkerchief.

Cecilia dabbed at her eyes with the linen. "I'm sorry," she mumbled, taking a deep breath. She managed to recover her composure, cleared her throat, and bent down to pick up the abandoned parasol. With one quick motion, she slipped the diamond off her finger and wrapped it in the handkerchief. She pressed it into his hand and smiled briefly. "I hope you'll be very happy," she said stiffly, and then ran back out into the rain. He could hear her calling for her maid, telling her to pack their things and prepare for departure.

Tom stood alone in the shelter of the grove, looking down at the ring in his hand. In the absence of the sun it merely gave off a dull sheen, and the sight of it gave him a feeling of irreplaceable loss.

Chapter 9: Letting Go
  [Printer Friendly Version of This Chapter]

Author's Notes: I own the plot, original characters, banner, and all chapter images throughout the story. Everything else is owned by J.K. Rowling. Please be aware that I have blended in my own original ideas with canon information and I'll be happy to discuss anything in a review or a PM.

Chapter Nine: Letting Go
by Girldetective85

"There is a time for silence. A time to let go and allow people to hurl themselves
into their own destiny. And a time to prepare to pick up the pieces when it's all over."

- Gloria Naylor / Octavia Butler

Later that evening while supper cooked, Merope sat trying to read in her father's armchair. She found herself reading the same sentence over and over before deciding to give up and put the book aside. She rose and walked over to the window. The frigid November rain had become wet snow, and she watched the heavy flakes plummet to the ground with an ache in her heart. What made me talk to Bethe like that? she berated herself. How could I have shown so little gratitude to her?

Since the argument that afternoon, she had gone home filled with regret. Reassuring herself that she'd done the right thing, telling herself that Bethe was determined not to be happy for her, had not comforted Merope. She'd never spoken to anyone that way before; cheek would have earned her a hard lesson from Marvolo. Resting her elbows on the windowsill, she put her head in her hands and squeezed the salty hot tears from her eyes. Bethe, her friend, her sister...

The door swung open behind her and she turned to see Tom, his dark coat and hat speckled with white, a satisfied grin on his face. "Good news, darling," he announced, closing the door behind him.

"What is it, Tom?"

"My engagement to Cecilia is over and done. I'm a free man!" Tom beamed. "That is, unless you agree to marry me. I'd gladly be your slave forever. Will you, Merope?"

She ran into his arms and hugged him with all her strength, ignoring the wet snow that soaked through her dress and stung her skin. "Oh, Tom, thank God," she murmured, "thank God everything has come right. I thought -"

"What?" He lifted her face and gently wiped the tears away with his thumb. "You thought I wouldn't ask you?"

Merope tried to laugh. "I - I told Bethe that you would. I knew you would."

Tom frowned. "Bethe? Your friend from the village?" he asked. "She didn't think I'd ask you?"

"I'm sure she did, my love, I'm sure she did -" she hastened to reassure him, but he began to look angry.

"She thought I'd marry Cecilia and continue to see you? She thought I wasn't serious about you, Merope?" He pulled away and carelessly flung his coat over the armchair. He walked slowly over to the window and gazed outside, though it was now so dark that only his reflection could be seen.

Merope hurried to his side. "Are you angry with me, Tom?"

Tom pulled her close, giving her a hard kiss on the forehead. "Not with you, darling," he responded, "but with that friend of yours." He said the word friend as one would say the word snake. "Promise me you'll never see her again."

"Tom - I -"

His tone was light, but his arm tightened like a vise. "Promise me, sweetheart."

"I - I promise you."

"What do you promise me?"

"I promise I'll never see her again," Merope whispered, with a feeling like a knife in her gut. Forgive me, Bethe, I've made my choice...

Tom put his other arm around her and hugged her tightly. "That's my good girl," he said approvingly. "We won't have anyone who wants to keep us apart, will we?" She shook her head and he smiled lovingly. "There's nothing but joy for us from now on, Merope. You'll never know fear or hunger or sadness again. I'll take good care of you. We'll have our own home. You'll grow fat and contented and give orders to an army of servants..."

Merope laughed despite herself. "Tom -"

"...we'll have nine children..."


He grinned. "I have something to give you," he said, and pulled from his pocket the most beautiful ring she had ever seen. A huge diamond sparkled in the center of a slim gold band and when he slipped it onto her thin hand, she gasped at its weight. "Aren't you going to thank me, Mrs. Riddle?" demanded Tom, pretending to frown at her.

She laughed at the sheer folly of it all and threw her arms around him, melding her lips with his.

* * *

A few days later, Tom stood in the entrance hall of Riddle Manor, straightening his cravat before the mirror. He caught sight of his own face, young and pale and nervous. "Steady on, old boy," he murmured. "You're not going to your death, after all." He straightened his shoulders, lifted his chin, and walked confidently into the parlor.

This room was the especial property of his mother and had been designed accordingly. Bright floral silks covered both chaise and sofa, perfectly matching the rose-colored walls, drapes, and carpet. Mary Riddle was sitting by the window, where the morning sunlight made the most of her blond hair and elegant features. The folds of her dress fluttered gracefully to the floor and when she looked up at her son's entrance, the pearls in her ears swayed lightly.

Tom felt a great rush of affection for her, this pretty mother who'd always given him everything he desired. One day, he hoped to see Merope as elegant and lovely, smiling indulgently at her own children.

"Good morning, Mother." He turned to see Thomas Riddle standing by the fire, looking out of place in this utopia of roses and chiffon. "Good morning, Father." Apparently they'd been talking to each other instead of enjoying the usual stiff silence; Tom could sense it from the awkward politeness between them.

There was an unusual amount of tension in Mrs. Riddle's face. "Your father and I are puzzled as to why you've called this - family meeting, as you put it. Is anything wrong?" The way in which she asked the question implied that she knew something was wrong.

"Nothing's wrong," he said, unable to keep from smiling. "Everything is perfectly right. Mother, Father ... I've fallen in love."

Mr. Riddle raised his eyebrows and rocked back and forth on his heels. "Is that so? Well then, very good. Carry on, Tom," he said approvingly, and made as if to leave. His wife threw a warning glance in his direction. "Well, what do you expect me to say? The boy has fallen in love with his fiancee not a fortnight before the wedding. Jolly good, isn't it?"

"Yes, jolly good," his wife replied sarcastically, "especially when said fiancee flew from the house yesterday without so much as a by-your-leave."

This piece of news took Mr. Riddle by surprise. "What? What happened?"

"I think our son is trying to explain, if you'll only give him a chance," she said coldly.

Tom cleared his throat. Better to get this over with quickly, he thought. "The truth is that Cecilia and I have mutually ended our engagement. We decided that we weren't right for each other, and that we cared for other people." There, that wasn't so difficult.

"Other people?" Mrs. Riddle echoed. "Tom, we've been planning this wedding for months. Your father and I held an engagement party for you in August! We sent out invitations! Everyone is coming -"

"I know all of that, I do!" he said quickly. "But my own happiness comes first, and happiness lies with my darling Merope -"

"Merope?" repeated Mr. Riddle. "What an odd name." He stared at their son as realization struck. "Good God, Tom, how should I behave to Charles Ingram? We've been friends for so long, ever since cricket at school. His daughter and my son... What shall we do?"

"I'm sorry to hurt your friendship in any way," Tom stated, "but my mind is made up. I love both of you dearly, but I love Merope too and I will have her for my wife."

His mother was silent for some time. "You've always been a headstrong boy, and I see that hasn't changed," she spoke finally. "Tell us about this Merope of yours. Is she a good girl? Has she a respectable family?"

"What does her father do?" demanded Mr. Riddle.

He sits in jail, Tom thought. "She's a wonderful girl, as you'll see for yourself," he said, evading the last two questions. "I've invited her to tea tomorrow." They'll love her, he told himself forcefully. How could they not?

* * *

The last of the boxes was packed and loaded onto the wagon waiting outside the shop. Bethe stepped down from the ladder. "Thank you for helping me with everything," she told the young men gratefully. "I'd be packing all night if it weren't for you two."

Peter Everett tipped his hat courteously. "I'll put your things in our shed." He left the shop and swung himself into the wagon, clucking to the horses.

Adam Shepherd, the baker's nephew, paused before following his friend. "I delivered your message to the Gaunt cottage, Miss," he said bashfully. "I put it under the door."

Bethe raised her eyebrows. "Miss Gaunt wasn't home, Adam?"

"No, Miss. I knocked on the door and nobody answered. It was dark inside."

"Thank you so much," she responded, a little deflated, and when she was alone again she sat down thoughtfully. Since their argument, Bethe had sent two messages and received no reply. Two days ago, she'd come to the Gaunt cottage in person only to find the silence and darkness Adam had just described. She wanted to apologize, to make amends for her lack of confidence in Merope's future. She had rebuked herself over and over for having been so insensitive. I should've kept quiet about everything, she thought regretfully. All these misgivings over a silly dream, and I've lost a dear friend.

Bethe considered the fact that she would probably never see Merope again. The girl had been so angry that Bethe felt sure she wouldn't be forgiven soon, much less be invited to her wedding. And yes, a wedding there would be. It was whispered throughout Little Hangleton that Cecilia Ingram had left with a broken heart, and that Tom Riddle was now to marry another woman. No one knew for sure who the woman was, but it wouldn't be long before the village discovered the truth - that the new bride-to-be was the forlorn girl from Gaunt's Hill.

Sighing, Bethe rose and wrapped herself in a thick woolen shawl. She gave her shop one final glance - how empty it looked with all the shelves stripped and bare! - and went into the snowy street, locking the door behind her. I'll miss this place, she thought sadly, and began walking home through the village.

Although she wouldn't leave for Silvermist Woods until February, Bethe planned to be in Ireland for all of December and January. She'd written to her father's brother, Gerald Trelawney, only to discover that he was long dead. A polite reply had come from his son, Theodore, who seemed very kind and eager to meet her. He lived in Wicklow with his wife and child, and warmly invited Bethe to come and spend Christmas with them.

"I suppose Merope should know I'm leaving," she murmured aloud, walking up the little lane to her home, "though I doubt she'd care just now." Her spirits sank again when she remembered the two unanswered notes. Surely it wouldn't hurt to write one final letter to wish Tom and Merope joy, and to let the girl know that Bethe's friendship would always be hers.

Good luck, my dear, Bethe thought fervently, stamping her feet on the mat. She went inside and shut the door on the cold wintry evening.

* * *

The next day, a black carriage stopped in front of the Gaunt cottage. A footman came to knock at the door. "Good day, Miss. We've come to take you to the house if you're ready."

Merope smiled nervously at him. "Thank you," she returned, pulling a sable cloak around herself. It had been a gift from Tom, along with the dress and leather shoes she wore, and she felt a little awkward in her new finery. Hardly two dresses at a time in my life, and now I wear an outfit more costly than the cottage.

The footman helped her into the carriage and closed the door securely behind her. She barely heard him calling to the driver as she gaped at the interior. Every inch was covered in dark green velvet and a few warm furs were laid neatly across from her. She unfolded one and covered her lap with it, reveling in the novelty of traveling in such ostentatious style. Even the world outside the windows looked different; the trees, the little lane, the place in which she had grown up - all of it seemed changed somehow. Maybe this was how things looked to the rich: small, menial, and unimportant.

Merope pressed her face against the cold glass as they descended the hill and took the road to Riddle Manor. The excitement of riding in such a fine carriage dissolved into anxiety when she saw the gates of the great house opening to receive them.

She had been very reluctant to meet the Riddles since Tom had first suggested it, but there was simply no refusing him. She wondered how he thought his parents would receive her. Surely, after such a beautiful prospective daughter-in-law as Cecilia, they'd laugh and shut the door in her face. And what then? She had no doubt Tom would be on her side, that he'd follow her to the ends of the Earth. But what if his parents disinherited him? What if Tom came to hate her for making him choose?

Her stomach contorted with worry. Just breathe, she told herself, and make Tom proud. There's nothing else I can do.

Tom ran out of the house to help her from the carriage. "Hello, love," he said, kissing her.

"Hello," she returned, forcing a smile.

"Nervous?" he suggested, tucking her arm under his.

"Terrified," replied Merope, and he laughed affectionately.

"Don't be," he said reassuringly, squeezing her hand. "When they see how sweet you are, they'll fall in love with you just as I have."

Merope had her doubts on that subject but chose not to voice them. Instead, she preoccupied herself with admiring the foyer they had just passed through. A feeling of surreality overcame her as she admired the tiles on the floor, the marble busts, and the sweeping staircase ahead. It struck her that one day, all of this might be hers. She could become the mistress of a beautiful house she'd only ever dreamed of entering.

A rosy-cheeked maid who couldn't have been older than Merope gave her a curtsy. "May I take your wrap, Miss?" Her green eyes were round with curiosity and Merope felt sure that the girl would carry back a faithful report to the servants' quarters.

Tom helped Merope out of her cloak and handed it to the maid. "My parents are waiting for us in the drawing-room," he explained, beaming. "Mother usually takes her tea in the parlor, but I think she wanted to impress our guest of honor today." He winked at her as they passed a beautiful room in shades of pink. A ballroom stood on one side of the corridor, opposite a magnificent library. The drawing-room was the last room in the corridor.

Upon entering, Merope thought she understood why Mary Riddle had chosen to meet her in this room. It was intimidating in its splendor and she felt quite overwhelmed by the grave colors and heavy tapestries. An enormous oil painting over the fireplace showed a handsome, elderly couple, looking both proud and stern. It seemed like they were looking at her accusingly and Merope hastily turned away.

"My grandparents," Tom whispered, steering her over to where his parents were seated. "Mother, Father, I'd like you to meet Merope Gaunt, my fiancee."

As Merope curtsied awkwardly, she could feel Mrs. Riddle's cold eyes taking in every inch of her person. Her husband, however, took one look and returned disinterestedly to his coffee cakes. "It's an honor to meet you both," she murmured.

"A pleasure, I'm sure," Mrs. Riddle stated. "Won't you sit down?"

The young couple took the opposite sofa and Merope felt deeply thankful for Tom's comforting presence. How else could she hope to maintain her composure under Mary Riddle's chilly gaze and the Squire's complete disregard?

"So, Merope," continued Tom's mother, emphasizing every syllable in the name, "Tom tells us that you live close by. Has your family a house in the adjacent village?"

"I - I live here, ma'am," Merope faltered, "in Little Hangleton."

Mrs. Riddle's hand paused over the tea service. "Indeed? I've never seen you before, nor have I heard your name. Gaunt, was it?"

Her husband spoke up. "That reminds me. Tom m'boy, there's a peasant that lives on the hill opposite ours. The villagers call it Gaunt's Hill, do they not?"

"Yes, Father. That's Merope's home," said Tom, handing Merope a strawberry crumpet. She let it sit uneaten in her lap, afraid that her hands would shake and betray her.

Mrs. Riddle's thin eyebrows arched. "Indeed?" she said again, looking a trifle shocked.

"Yes. Merope and I first met there," Tom rambled on, "on one of my many rides past the cottage. It's lovely up there in the summer, Mother. You should see it."

His mother smiled stiffly. "How nice. And what do you do up there, Merope?"

Merope looked helplessly at Tom, who gave her a nod of encouragement. "Do, Mrs. Riddle?"

"What do you enjoy in your spare time?" his mother elaborated, speaking in a tone reserved for the very stupid. "What are your hobbies and pursuits? Do you ride? Paint? Play the piano? There must be something to do up there."

"Merope's very well-read, Mother," Tom interrupted, coming to her rescue. "Aren't you, darling? She reads all sorts of literature and poetry."

"Let her answer for herself, Tom. She has a tongue of her own," Mrs. Riddle replied, turning back to Merope. "What does your father do, child? Have you siblings?"

A familiar sick sensation came over Merope and her hands began to get damp and clammy. She almost felt as though her father had come home, that it was he and not Mrs. Riddle who was interrogating her. Just answer the question, Merope, she told herself. "I have one older brother," she heard herself say, and found herself clutching the locket for comfort. Why, oh why won't you help me now? she pleaded silently, but there was no answer.

"And your parents? Surely you have those?" the woman prompted with a short, harsh laugh. "What does your father do?"

"Mother," Tom said sternly, frowning at her and looking sideways at Merope. He was beginning to realize that the interview wouldn't be as promising as he'd hoped.

Mr. Riddle glanced at his wife. "I already told you Gaunt was a peasant, did I not?" he asked, confused. "Bloody useless lump with a mad son. Isn't that correct, Tom?"

The air was thick with tension and when Merope spoke, her words struggled through the stifling silence. "My father's a peasant, my brother's mad, and my mother's dead," she whispered, trembling as she rose from the sofa. She needed to get out of this house, to get away from these people. "Excuse me." Her feet were carrying her away and she was running, actually running out of the room. As she passed the portrait of Tom's grandparents, she fancied that their expressions had changed to shock. No soul, not even Tom as a child, had dared run in this room. Merope heard Tom calling her but his voice sounded so far away.

She had nearly reached the corridor when she felt Tom's arms go round her. "Darling," he murmured soothingly, "come with me, you need to sit down." He turned to look over his shoulder at his parents and snapped, "I'll return shortly." He took her to the library and helped her into a large armchair. A pitcher of lukewarm water sat nearby and he poured her a glass. "Drink this, sweetheart. I'm so sorry, Merope," he said, kissing her forehead. "I truly thought they'd behave better."

Away from the smothering drawing-room, Merope already felt better. She looked anxiously up at Tom, whose tight lips and furrowed brow displayed a furious anger that she would later come to recognize. "Tom -"

He kissed her hand fiercely. "You'll be all right in here?" he asked. "I need to have a word with them." He strode briskly out of the room. Merope heard the thud of the drawing-room door violently hitting its frame and guessed that he'd thrown it closed behind him. Apparently it had bounced back and stood ajar, because she could hear almost every word that passed between them.

"What the bloody hell was that all about?" he was asking in a low voice that shook with anger. Mrs. Riddle murmured an inaudible reply and Merope heard Tom laugh scornfully. "I'll speak to you however I please, Mother. Don't make me ask the question again."

"Now, Tom -" began Mr. Riddle.

"I bring to you my fiancee, the woman I love, the woman I will marry," Tom spat, "and you treat her like the dirt beneath your shoe. You ask her impertinent, offensive questions -"

Mrs. Riddle's high voice pierced the air and Merope could now hear her words. "How is it impertinent or offensive to inquire after someone's family?"

"Very well. You ask her questions in an impertinent, offensive manner," her son corrected himself scathingly.

"Tom, she's a peasant, for God's sake!" Mr. Riddle was speaking now. "I told you that her father -"

"I don't care about her father! I love her, and her family has nothing to do with it!"

"This love came on very suddenly!"

Tom's voice got even louder. "And what's that supposed to mean, Mother?"

"I mean that we never even heard about this girl until now! You were still in love with Cecilia not two weeks ago and now this girl has ... has bewitched you! She has ensnared you somehow..."

"Listen to yourself! What utter poppycock, Mother," Tom said disgustedly. "I fell in love with her, I will marry her, and that is all."

Despite the distressing situation, Merope found herself smiling faintly. How loving, how loyal Tom's words were ... She nearly missed Mrs. Riddle's next words, spoken in a low, intense voice.

"If she's pregnant, Tom," she was saying, "we'll get rid of her. We'll send her off into the country somewhere, pay her to keep quiet - it will all be taken care of, son. But for heaven's sake -"

Merope heard the loud smashing of china and Mrs. Riddle's piercing shriek. Then there were footsteps and Tom was hurrying into the library, his handsome face twisted with fury. "Let's get out of here," he said, pulling her into the corridor. Merope glanced over her shoulder. The Riddles and half a dozen servants were staring after them, open-mouthed. Mrs. Riddle was crying brokenly and her husband, looking bewildered, was patting her awkwardly on the shoulder.

"Tom!" his mother was calling. "My son, my only son -"

A wave of guilt washed over Merope and she tried to disengage herself from Tom's grasp. Mrs. Riddle was a cruel, insensitive woman, but it was clear that she loved her boy dearly. "Tom, I -"

"I'm no longer their son," Tom stated coldly, striding over to the cloakroom and pulling out her wrap. "If they refuse to acknowledge you as my fiancee and to treat you with respect, I won't be a part of their family." He steered her out of the house. The carriage was still in the courtyard and the driver looked at them, perplexed. "Take us back to the Gaunt cottage," Tom commanded, getting inside after Merope.

"What are we going to do, Tom?" Merope asked helplessly. She felt weak and unbalanced. Somehow everything had begun to spin out of control, out of focus.

Beside her, Tom's perfect features were an icy mask. He turned to look at her. "We are going to elope."

Chapter 10: A Dream Fulfilled
  [Printer Friendly Version of This Chapter]

Author's Notes: I own the plot, original characters, banner, and all chapter images throughout the story. Everything else is owned by J.K. Rowling. Please be aware that I have blended in my own original ideas with canon information and I'll be happy to discuss anything in a review or a PM.

Chapter Ten: A Dream Fulfilled
by Girldetective85

"Love is night jasmine, a diamond in darkness...
It is the most common of miracles, fashioned of fleecy clouds -
a handful of stars tossed into the night sky."

- Jim Bishop

The night was clear and cold and the moon shone too brightly for Tom's taste. He peered up at it from the carriage window, wondering if it would betray them tonight. His fears were unfounded, however, for when they pulled up in front of Riddle Manor, the house was a great silent shadow. The footman opened the door for him and he stepped out with a slight shiver, whether from cold or from anticipation, he couldn't tell.

"I've already informed Henry that you would come, sir," whispered the footman. "He has packed your things and will be waiting in the vestibule." As if on cue, the front entrance opened and Tom's valet peered out. He nodded at them to assure them that all the household were abed, and began handing out parcels and bundles of luggage.

"Good work, Henry," Tom told him quietly. "Have you the papers?"

"In my pocket this minute, sir," answered the valet. "I also have your passport, and we'll add everyone else when we reach Southampton."

Tom raised an eyebrow. "Everyone else?"

"Aside from your lady, just Gretchen and myself, sir." Henry looked at him sternly. "I won't hear of you traveling without assistance. We'll take the smaller carriage and follow you to Great Hangleton. Both vehicles will be returned to your parents once we board the train."

There seemed to be no arguing with the addition to their party, but Tom was inwardly grateful that he and Merope would be taken care of.

A young woman came out and closed the door behind her. Her freckled face glowed with excitement as she curtsied. "Master Tom."

"Henry has told you the details?" Tom inquired, and she nodded. "You are not to speak of our situation to anyone. You are to be a lady's maid to my wife and answer to all of her wishes."

"I'll do my best, sir," she said respectfully.

When all of the packages had been secured, Tom resumed his seat in the larger carriage and ordered the driver to return to the Gaunt cottage. Merope had begged for a few moments alone to gather her few belongings and to write a short letter to her father, should he return to find her gone. Tom hadn't been in the least inclined to explain anything to the lunatic, but Merope had been so determined that he couldn't refuse. Even after all this time, she was still afraid of Marvolo Gaunt. If he comes near her again, I'll kill him, Tom vowed, his blood boiling at the thought of anyone harming her.

Merope was already waiting outside when the carriage arrived, a worn carpetbag in her hand. When Tom jumped down to help her, she looked questioningly at the second carriage. "My valet Henry and a maid," he explained, smiling. "Your maid, to be precise."

She looked at him with wonder. "What will I do with a maid?" she asked innocently and he laughed and gave her a big hug.

"Are you all right? Having second thoughts?"

"Never." She turned to look back at the cottage, her eyes roaming over each cracked window and rotted board. "I just can't believe my wishes are coming true. I've always dreamed that I would leave this place, and now I leave it ... with you." She kissed his neck softly and took his hand. "We should go."

They got into the carriage and sat with their arms around each other in the darkness. "We'll go to Great Hangleton and be married immediately," Tom told her. "When morning comes, you'll be my wife. How does that suit you, Merope Riddle?"

"Merope Riddle," she echoed, feeling the words linger in the air as do all private dreams which are spoken aloud.

* * *

The afternoon sun was shining brightly and Bethe considered it a good omen for her journey. Everything had gone smoothly that morning. Her cottage had been shut up securely, her belongings stored by obliging neighbors, and Dr. Hamlin had kindly offered to take her to Great Hangleton Station in his fancy red Crossley. Bethe had never been in a motorcar before and had enjoyed the ride immensely.

"Much better than a stuffy carriage, isn't it?" the doctor had said complacently. "I know what everyone says about my car, but I don't care in the least. King Riddle nearly had kittens when I brought it home from London, but I do as I please." Bethe had chuckled along with him, ignoring the familiar twinge at the mention of the Riddles.

From Great Hangleton Station, she'd taken the train to Liverpool and arrived at port by late morning. Her paperwork completed and her luggage taken in hand, Bethe had nothing else to do but wait to board the ship to Wicklow. There were several other passengers standing on the dock with her: a man reading the newspaper with a furrowed brow, an elderly woman chatting gaily to her granddaughter, and a harassed-looking mother chasing twin boys who were racing up and down the dock.

Bethe's eye was drawn to a group of three people sitting on a bench nearby. One of the women was searching for a handkerchief and her husband handed her one of his own. "There you are, my sweet," Bethe heard him say tenderly, and she kissed him gratefully. Their female companion seemed quite fed up with this display and stood up abruptly.

"Where are you off to, Rose? They'll be boarding us soon," the gentleman called to her.

"I won't go far, Uncle. I just feel so restless sitting all the time," she said. When she turned, Bethe saw that she was very young - probably in her late teens - and very familiar. She wore a simple dove-gray dress, her bright hair tucked under an enormous hat. She paced to and from the edge of the dock, sometimes looking out at sea, sometimes rolling her gloves into a wrinkled ball. The third time she turned back from the dock, their eyes met and she paused. Bethe gave a start of surprise; it was none other than Rose Ingram, Cecilia's younger sister.

She took the opportunity to approach with a friendly smile. "I think we've met before. My name is Bethe -"

"The apothecary in Little Hangleton. Of course," Rose returned. "How do you do?"

"Very well. And you, Miss Ingram?"

"Just Rose, if you please, and I'm rather eager to leave," the girl answered with a mirthless laugh. "At least I'll have my own cabin on the ship and may see as little of them as I like." She gestured to the couple sitting on the bench. "Married twenty years and still shameful as newlyweds. It's appalling."

Bethe hid a smile. "Are you off to Ireland for the holidays, then?"

"Just the three of us - Uncle George, Aunt Hetta, and myself. My parents don't fancy traveling, and my sister is ... indisposed at the moment," Rose returned, her lips set in a grim line. She looked sideways at Bethe. "You met her fiance that day in the shop. I suppose you've heard he's jilted her?"

"I -"

"Of course you have. How could you help it?" Rose continued without waiting for an answer. "And now it's begun all over again ... are we never to have a moment's peace?"

"The gossip will die down eventually," Bethe said, misunderstanding.

Rose waved her hand impatiently. "I'm not talking about that. I mean she's gotten herself engaged again." The bitterness in her voice was unmistakable. "So much for that love potion and all her pretenses of concern for me..."

Bethe stared at her. "I beg your pardon?"

The girl sighed. "Don't mind me. Mother always says I talk too much for my own good."

"No, please continue," Bethe said urgently. "What was that about a love potion? The one she bought in my shop that day?"

"Yes, and a useless one at that. No offense meant," Rose added quickly, "but all it did was make John seem drunk as a lord. How embarrassing!"

"John!" Bethe repeated. "Who's John? I thought Cecilia bought the potion for Tom!"

Rose frowned. "Of course not! Why would Cecilia, of all people, need a love potion? No. She knew I cared for John Havering and offered to buy it. It was a lark, really, a gesture of affection for me. Apparently an empty gesture, since they're now to be wed..." She continued chattering on, but Bethe hardly heard a word.

I told Merope that she was buying it for Tom Riddle, she thought, remembering Merope's intent look. "A love potion?" she had asked. "For Tom? But he would want her ... it would work."

"Are you all right?" Rose broke off. "You look pale."

"I'm fine," Bethe murmured, feeling slightly faint. "Please, go back to your aunt and uncle. Don't worry about me."

Rose hesitated. "We'll see you on board?" she asked hopefully. "You'll join us for dinner?"

"Yes, yes, anything," said Bethe, barely noticing when Rose left her. The faintness was subsiding somewhat, but in its place was a strange numbness behind her eyes.

How peculiar, how maddening the whole situation was. First there was Merope, hopelessly infatuated with Tom Riddle. A chance meeting led to an introduction and an unusual friendship. Then Tom cooled towards his fiancee, who showed up in Bethe's shop asking for a love potion. Assuming that it was for Tom, Bethe had mentioned it to Merope, implying that Cecilia was actively competing for his affection - when it had all been a misunderstanding!

What if I'd known that Cecilia was buying it for her sister's lover? Bethe asked herself. I wouldn't have mentioned it to Merope, and she wouldn't have tricked an innocent man into this web of deceit.

The potion had singlehandedly deprived Cecilia of her intended and now, indirectly, Rose of her potential fiance. How many others had it already affected?

How many others would be affected?

* * *

The cathedral of Great Hangleton was an impressive stone structure set in the heart of the city. Merope stepped out of the carriage, feeling very small and countrified. Pale ribbons of pink and gold were already forming on the eastern horizon. It had taken them much longer than expected to reach Great Hangleton, but here they were.

Tom knocked on the door of a small house outside the cathedral. A short, balding man came out in a long rumpled nightshirt and blue dressing-gown, looking slightly alarmed. "May I help you?"

"We're in need of your services," said Tom, taking Merope's hand. "We wish to be married."

"Yes, of course. Come back any time in the morning..."

"We wish to be married immediately." Tom reached into his pocket for a large handful of money. "You'll be paid handsomely for your trouble."

The man rubbed his bleary eyes, staring at the money. "I see," he spoke, after a moment's hesitation. "Then will you kindly wait in the church? I'll be in shortly."

"Thank you." Pleased, Tom led Merope to the door of the cathedral, the two servants trailing behind. "I'm sorry I couldn't give you a big ceremony," he whispered.

She squeezed his hand. "It doesn't matter," she said quietly, "as long as we're together."

The minister joined them very shortly, looking much more presentable in his long white robes. "Follow me, please." He led them into a high-ceilinged chamber that could easily have fit a thousand of the Gaunts' cottages. Shining wooden pews lined the room and stained glass windows adorned the walls. The altar stood on a raised platform at the head of the room.

Merope walked hand-in-hand with Tom, sneaking a quick glance at his happy face. When I leave this church, I'll be Tom Riddle's wife, she realized.

The ceremony passed by in a blur. Tom and Merope stood facing the minister, while the two servants sat in the pew behind them. The minister read selections from his prayer book before prompting them with the traditional vows. Tom's voice was calm and reassuring, and Merope heard herself repeat the words with a serenity she didn't feel.

They each signed their names on the marriage certificate, Tom's bold scrawl set permanently beside her own childish letters. From a coat pocket, Tom produced a matched pair of simple gold bands. He grinned at the surprised look on her face and when the minister gave them a nod, they each slipped one onto the other's ring finger.

"Will you, Thomas Everard Riddle, take this woman to be your lawfully wedded wife?"

"I will," Tom answered firmly, without a hint of hesitation.

"And will you, Merope Annabelle Gaunt, take this man to be your lawfully wedded husband?"

"I will," she whispered.

The minister beamed at them both. "Then I pronounce you man and wife, and you may kiss your bride."

Tom swooped her into his arms and kissed her deeply. When they finally broke apart, gasping for air, Merope had to stifle a giggle at the appalled look on the minister's face; no doubt he had expected a chaste peck on the lips. Gretchen was sniffling quietly into a handkerchief and when Henry shook hands with his master, there was actually emotion on his face. He quickly regained his usual impassiveness. "The train to Southampton leaves at six, sir. It's already quarter past five and we must be off," he told Tom in an undertone.

"Very well," Tom answered, holding his arm out for Merope with a smile. "If we must, we must. The carriage awaits, Mrs. Riddle."

* * *

It all began when Betty Tupman, the under-housemaid to the Riddle family, went home for supper. Her father, old Timothy Tupman, was a carpenter who specialized in repairs all over Hangleton and knew every soul in the area. The name of Gaunt was not unfamiliar to him and when Betty reported that the Gaunt girl was betrothed to young Master Tom, he was quite unwilling to believe her. Knowing his daughter to be honest, however, Mr. Tupman went to verify the information.

The Porters next door had a nephew who worked at the manor and who had witnessed the Riddles' terrible row. According to him, Mary Riddle had been beside herself with weeping all afternoon and night, screaming that her son had been stolen from her. This piece of information, coupled with the tidbit about the Gaunt girl, was just too explosive to be kept quiet. Mrs. Rita Porter took it upon herself to enlighten her sister-in-law, who then told her husband, who told his brother, who let it slip over a mug of ale at the Hanged Man. The men at the pub hurried home to inform their wives, who talked amongst themselves with the excitement that human beings display when others are in distress.

Thus it was that on the afternoon after Tom Riddle and Merope Gaunt's departure from Little Hangleton, the news of their elopement had spread through the village like wildfire. A large group of women gathered inside the cozy bake shop that cold November day, completely beside themselves with interest.

"A scandal! An absolute scandal!" gushed Lucy Shepherd, without bothering to hide her glee. "Can you imagine what this will do to the name of Riddle?"

"They're ruined for life," Amelia Johnson agreed, sharp eyes gleaming. "They'll never be able to show their faces again after this."

"What happened, exactly? Are you quite sure that it was the Gaunt girl?" inquired a farmer's wife.

Rita Porter rolled her eyes. "Of course it was, Pippa!" she said indignantly. "My nephew Gregory always tells the truth, and that was the very girl! The one with the wonky eyes..."

"She was sitting bold as brass in Mrs. Riddle's parlor, is what Tupman's girl says," added Mrs. Shepherd knowledgeably.

"I heard that she broke a teacup..."

"I heard that she threw a teacup in Mrs. Riddle's face..."


Under the din of chattering women, Mrs. Shepherd turned to her friend. "Why would he marry her of all people?" she mused. "He was engaged to that beautiful Miss Ingle -"

"Ingram, dear," Mrs. Johnson corrected her.

" - and now he had to go and choose someone a hundred times poorer and plainer," continued Mrs. Shepherd, as though she hadn't heard.

"Think about it, Lucy. Why do people get married in a hurry?" Mrs. Johnson prompted her slyly.

Mrs. Porter, who was listening in, gasped. "You think so, Amelia?"

Mrs. Johnson shrugged. "Wait until it's born, count the months on your fingers, and see exactly why they had to marry in a hurry. But then I do wonder why the possibility is there at all..."

"Exactly," Mrs. Shepherd said plaintively, "just as I was saying. Why would he choose her of all the girls? The old Tom Riddle would sooner have married his horse than take up with a woman so beneath him."

"Devilry," Mrs. Porter suggested darkly. "There was always something wrong with those Gaunts..."

"She must have used her feminine wiles to lure him in," agreed Mrs. Johnson.

"What if -" began Pippa, the farmer's wife, in a timid voice. "What if they fell in love?" A dozen faces turned to her in disbelief and she shrugged helplessly. "It happens..."

Mrs. Johnson shook her head. "Extremely unlikely," she said firmly, and everyone nodded and murmured in perfect agreement.

And that was that.

* * *

Later that evening, Merope sat in her dressing room on the Princess Christine, the ocean liner bound for Cherbourg. She was at the vanity table, carefully tucking away two small vials of precious, amber-colored liquid into the darkness of a drawer. She'd managed to slip another drop into Tom's glass of wine at dinner. When she straightened, she was distracted by her own reflection in the mirror. She barely even recognized herself. The girl looking back at her was a fine lady, her hair set in soft curls, her eyes bright and happy, her face smooth and smelling of rosewater. But when Merope touched her hair, the girl did too; when she straightened the folds of her mauve silk dressing gown, the girl followed suit. I am that girl, she marveled. That girl is me.


"Oh!" Merope gasped and touched the gold chain that still dangled from her neck. Had the locket finally spoken to her?

"Did you say something, ma'am?" Gretchen called from the adjacent room, where she was making up the bed.

"N-no," Merope answered. She pulled the locket out from underneath the silk collar of her robe and examined it. The heavy gold felt warm in the palm of her hand. Are you there? she asked it silently.

I am here. You are here. We are here...

Why have you been silent for so long? she asked, gazing at the tiny glittering emerald.

The locket shone calmly at her in the lamplight. Silence is golden.

I needed your help when I was at the Riddles' house. I begged you to say something, and you didn't.

It gleamed at her. No harm done. You are where I want you to be.

"Mrs. Riddle?" Gretchen appeared in the doorway of the dressing room and Merope jumped in surprise. The maid carried in a huge bouquet of red roses, arranged in a cut-glass vase. "Mr. Riddle had these sent to you, ma'am, with a note."

"Thank you," said Merope shyly, setting the vase on her vanity table and accepting the note. She wanted to read the message but Gretchen was still standing there expectantly, as though awaiting orders. "I - could you ... if you could please -"

Thankfully, Gretchen seemed to understand and bobbed a quick curtsy. "Please ring me if you need anything else, ma'am."

When she was gone, Merope buried her nose among the flowers and took a deep sniff of their heady fragrance. "How beautiful," she murmured with delight, unfolding Tom's note impatiently. The message had only four words written in Tom's slanting handwriting: My love, turn around.

She spun around to see Tom grinning at her from the doorway of the adjacent room, holding a velvet box in his hands. "Tom! How long have you been here?" she demanded, laughing.

"Just slipped in when the maid left," he said casually.

"Thank you for the flowers," she told him, standing up to give him a kiss. "They're beautiful! But what's in the box?"

Tom smiled at her indulgently. "Why don't you open it and see?"

She took it from him, feeling like a child on Christmas Day as she unwrapped the ribbon and lifted the lid. Resting on a bed of navy velvet was the most beautiful necklace she had ever seen. It was a simple chain of tiny interlocking squares of diamonds and rubies, with a larger blood-red ruby at the center. Merope nearly dropped the box in her shock. "Tom!" she gasped.

He chuckled and led her over to the vanity table. She sat down and faced the mirror, and he knelt beside her chair. "I saw this in a shop window when we changed trains in Northampton and thought it'd make a good wedding present," he explained, draping the jewels over her neck and fastening it at the back. "But what's this?" His fingers rested on the gold chain at the nape of her neck.

Merope laughed. "Oh, it's just something my father gave me."

"Ugly old thing," he commented, examining the oval locket with the engraved serpent. "You should get rid of it. I'll buy you a much prettier locket."


The word resounded so loudly in her head that she gasped, afraid Tom had heard.

"What's the matter, darling?" Tom asked, concerned.

"N-nothing," she answered quickly, her face hot. "I'm just attached to it, that's all. But if you don't like it, Tom, I will of course get rid of it."

You'll do no such thing!

Tom smiled affectionately and put his arm around her. "We can have the stone removed and put it into another necklace or a ring, if you like. It looks like the only thing of value. But won't you take it off so we can see what the ruby necklace looks like?"

"Yes, of course," she answered, and lifted her hands to the clasp.

You need me ... remember that it was I who helped you!

Annoyance washed over her. I helped myself, she told it, and tore it from her neck. The locket looked so small and insignificant lying on the vanity table. She looked away from it and into the mirror at her face and Tom's. The ruby necklace looked absolutely stunning, gleaming scarlet against her pale skin.

"It looks beautiful, just as I thought it would," Tom said proudly. He leaned his head into the side of her neck, kissing her bare shoulder. "You're beautiful."

"You've given me so many wedding presents, Tom," she told him wistfully, "and I haven't given you anything..."

"The only thing I want is you," he whispered, and covered her smile with a kiss. She turned in her chair to face him, her arms resting loosely on his shoulders. "Will you come to bed?" he asked, and when she nodded docilely, he stood up and lifted her easily in his arms. She rested her head on his shoulder, amazed at how light she felt as he carried her into the bedroom.

The fan-shaped marble lamps were dim, casting a soft golden glow over the entire room. The ornate four-poster bed with its powder blue canopy and soft azure spread reminded Merope of a big blue sailboat, floating gently on the sea. The moonlit water outside the porthole increased this effect and she felt like a mermaid as Tom laid her on the bed. She sunk into the embrace of the goosedown pillows and watched, for the first time in her life, as a man undressed. It struck her how complicated Tom's clothing was, at least compared to that of her father and brother. There was the charcoal jacket, the soft gray pinstriped waistcoat, and his white silk shirt and smoke-striped cravat. The gold cuff links clinked gently on the bedside table when he laid them down.

He stood beside the bed and smiled at her. "I wish you could see how you look to me," he said softly, "and how incredibly beautiful you are."

Merope thought she would weep with love; she who had never been called anything but "ugly" by everyone, she who had always abhorred her own strange eyes and mousy hair, had just been declared "beautiful" by a man who looked at her with passion burning in his eyes. How could she not succumb? How could she help but give in to the gentle cradling of the big blue sailboat, floating on the sea with the one she loved?

He bent over her and covered her face with kisses, and when he covered her body with his, she felt safer, warmer, and more protected than she had ever felt before. And when he held her face in his hands and asked her, "Are you afraid?" It was with utter honesty that she shook her head and pulled him closer, relishing the weight of his body on hers. He helped her out of her dressing-gown and hugged her tightly to him, his lips open against the side of her neck, his fingers expertly slipping open each pearl button on her nightgown. When his hands touched her bare skin, she gasped at their intense heat and shut her eyes.

"Who did this to you?" Tom whispered. She opened her eyes to see him examining a dark bruise at the front of her left shoulder, an angry mark on her flesh, and she shook her head silently. It's not important anymore, she told him with her eyes and he seemed to understand, though his face darkened and he held her with a fierce protectiveness. His hand moved down the length of her body and returned to her waist, bringing the hem of her gown with it.

The moon reflected off the waves outside, casting a soft, curving light onto the canopy above them. She could almost imagine that it was the sky above the two of them, the clouds watching them on the sailboat together, about to jump beneath the waves. She was not afraid, for Tom would be with her when they sank beneath the water; Tom was all she needed, all she cared for. With him, there was no need to breathe air.

"Do you love me?" she asked him.

His eyes were hazy and dark with desire. "Yes," he whispered. "I love you."

And she believed him when he said it, trusted in his love without even a hint of doubt, and when the moment came, it was with fulfillment, with total completion. She had been nothing but a half-person before, empty of love, empty of hope, and now she was perfectly whole. She cradled him in her arms, feeling his warm breath between her neck and her shoulder. He was whispering her name and it seemed like the most beautiful name she had ever heard - why had she ever hated it? She wanted to say his name, so she did, and she could feel his lips smiling even with his face buried in her hair.

Even when the moment ended, he was unwilling to let her go. He rolled onto his back, pulling her with him into the arc of his body, his arms tightening around her. He pressed a kiss on her damp forehead but when she looked up at him, he was already asleep. She rested her cheek on his shoulder and watched him dreaming, smiling at how young he looked when his face was relaxed in slumber. He was no more than a boy, after all, the boy she loved so much that she felt her heart would break with the strength of it. She hadn't realized that there tears on her face, that she was crying from sheer happiness. His hands were folded together on her waist, the left one resting on top and the wedding ring - the one that matched her own - was shining merrily in the moonlight.

She marveled that this was how it would be for the rest of her life, watching her husband sleep with her head on his shoulder, their twin rings glowing in the light of the moon. How could anyone deserve such happiness? she thought, gazing at Tom's peaceful face. And when she joined him in dreaming, still wrapped in his embrace, it was with utter unconsciousness that the moonlight was also illuminating the locket that lay forgotten on the table next door.

Chapter 11: Long-Forgotten Memories
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Author's Notes: I own the plot, original characters, banner, and all chapter images throughout the story. Everything else is owned by J.K. Rowling. Please be aware that I have blended in my own original ideas with canon information and I'll be happy to discuss anything in a review or a PM.

This chapter is dedicated to all my friends at eHPF, the kindest and most talented writers I know.

Chapter Eleven: Long-Forgotten Memories
by Girldetective85

"We never live, but we hope to live;
and always hoping to be happy, it is inevitable that we will never be so."

- Blaise Pascal

A few days later, Merope woke breathlessly from a troubled dream. She lay still, blinking rapidly, trying to take in her surroundings. For one terrifying moment, she imagined that she was back in the musty old attic with her father shouting for her downstairs. But she couldn't possibly be back there; she was in a room at least ten times the size of the entire cottage. Her hands reached out for reassurance, smoothing the celadon pillowcase, the eau-de-nil satin sheets, and the ruffled coverlet. Above the ornate four-poster bed in which she lay was a beautiful scrolled ceiling painted with clouds and dancing cherubs. She sighed with relief, remembering that she was in her honeymoon suite in Paris, and her hands reached out for Tom.

He was gone.

She stared in puzzlement at the empty pillow beside her, the imprint of her husband's head still impressed upon it. Where had he gone? Tom was not an early riser by nature; he had told her that his favorite part of the day was lying with her in bed, talking and laughing. Merope propped herself up on one elbow, looking around for a note, but the bedside table was empty. By the light filtering in around the windows, she guessed that it was late morning by now.

Someone knocked on the door and she turned expectantly, calling, "Come in!"

To her disappointment, it was only Gretchen. "Good morning, Madam," said the maid, carrying in a breakfast tray with coffee, buttered toast, and some poached eggs. "I hope you slept well?"

"Very well, thank you. Did you see my husband go out?" inquired Merope anxiously.

"Yes, madam, he left the hotel an hour ago to make arrangements for horseback-riding," Gretchen responded, crossing the room and throwing the curtains open. Sunlight streamed into the room, throwing a pattern of striped light onto the bed. "He told me to say that he would be back by noon to take you along the Seine."

It wasn't until the knot in her stomach lessened that Merope realized she had been afraid, almost sick with worry that he had gone away. The thought rang some distant bell in her memory, tugging at the edges of her consciousness, and she supposed that her nightmare had been about Tom leaving her. She tried to remember more about the dream but as always, it slipped away from her and was lost. "Horseback-riding?" she asked, sipping her coffee. "I've never been on a horse in my life."

Gretchen came over with a soft cotton robe and helped her into it. "I'm sure you'll enjoy it, Madam. I've always been afraid of horses myself," she confessed. "Is there anything else I can do for you?"

"No, I want to finish breakfast and wait for Tom," she answered. Timidly, she added, "Would you please come back at eleven to help me dress?"

"Yes, madam." The maid curtsied and left the room, closing the door softly behind her.

Merope had to smile at her own shyness. She'd had a personal maid for five days and still felt uneasy asking for anything. It frightened her a little, giving the word and getting everything she asked for at once. Slipping her feet into soft bedroom shoes, she took her mug of coffee over to the windows and looked out onto the street.

There was something magical about France, though Merope supposed that it was because she was young, sheltered, and deeply in love. The buildings were so elegant, the shops so bright and welcoming. Tom had taken her to buy more clothes and jewelry and though she dressed as well as any of the other women, she was aware that she lacked their stylish manners. Her husband knew a surprising number of people in Paris, friends and acquaintances of his family, and had introduced Merope to all of them. They always raised their eyebrows, inquired politely about her health and interests, and then ignored her completely. She felt sure that they talked about her afterward, about how uninteresting and unattractive Tom Riddle's little wife was. Probably they wondered what on earth he could have seen in her.

Just last night, they had dined with a young couple by the name of MacGregor. Edward had attended school with Tom and the two of them had got on perfectly, but Merope had been somewhat in awe of his dazzling wife. Alexandra was every bit as beautiful as Cecilia Ingram, well-dressed, well-mannered, and well-bred. It was her self assurance that had struck Merope, the confident way in which she ordered another glass of champagne, the skill with which she steered the conversation to fit everybody's interests. She had been brought up for this life, born and bred to marry a man of the MacGregors' and Riddles' class, to preside over a dinner table with grace and poise. As Alexandra had chatted on easily about horses, music, and painting, Merope had secretly wondered whether she could possibly play hostess for Tom's circle of friends. She had imagined herself facing Tom at a long table, laughing gaily and talking with knowledge about every subject introduced. It was a ridiculous picture.

Merope had watched Tom the entire night at the opera, observing his easy conversation with Alexandra. How could she compare herself with these lovely, bright, privileged women? Women around whom the world revolved, women who had never known a day of hardship, women who were universally loved. Was it so wrong of her to feel bitter? She was a mere stranger among them; she did not belong to their world - to his world. If not for Bethe's help, if not for the love potion, would Tom bend his head to kiss her hand like that? Would he offer his arm to her and lead her through the crowd of pearl-adorned dowagers? Would he come willingly to her at night, whisper loving words to her and run his fingers through her hair? And for the first time, Merope's hand had hesitated over Tom's glass of wine. A single golden drop had lingered around the lip of the bottle, not knowing whether to stay or fall.

I love him. I love him so much. A moment of weakness, and then the drop had fallen into the wine. When they returned to the hotel, he could barely wait. She remembered the way he had kissed her in the lift, completely ignoring the attendant's knowing smile, the way he had half-carried her into their room and slammed the door without waiting for Gretchen to turn down the bed, to close the curtains for the night. He had made love to her in the winter twilight that streamed through the windows, clutching her to him fiercely, his desperate lips at her throat. My love, he had whispered, my love.

Merope put down the mug of coffee and walked slowly over to her dressing table, pulling open the rosewood drawer. She pushed aside a few silk stockings, her fingers coming into contact with the cold porcelain box that she had hidden in the back. The box contained her wand and the two vials of amber liquid. She took out one of the little bottles and held it in the palm of her hand. In a way, she was addicted to the love potion; they both were. But how do I know for certain? she mused, watching the way it cast a yellowish glow on the table. How do I know that my happiness rests in one tiny drop, given each day? How do I know whether I really need it? She fantasized about letting it fall. The glass would smash on the tiled floor and the liquid would soak into the priceless rug. She remembered Tom's lips at her ear, his hands slipping the dress from her shoulders. Could one little drop really have the power to make a man say love?

Someone knocked on the door and the vial nearly did fall from her hand. Hurriedly, Merope replaced it in the box and shoved it back into the drawer. "Come in," she called, pretending to choose a pair of stockings.

She felt Tom kissing the side of her neck. "Good morning, sweetheart."

She leaned against his comforting warmth, letting him kiss her. "Good morning," she answered. "Where has my husband been all morning?"

"You have a husband? Maybe I'd better leave," he teased, turning her to face him. "Want to go riding? We left far too quickly for arrangements to be made about Apollo, and I miss being on a horse."

"I've never ridden before," she confessed.

"No matter," Tom said carelessly, "you can ride with me. You'll have to bundle up, it's a bit chilly. Finish your breakfast and get dressed."

Within half an hour, they were in a carriage headed for the Seine River. The stables nearby were well-kept and filled with beautiful horses, and the owner himself came out to greet them. "I'm afraid the cold has kept everyone but the most enthusiastic from riding," he told them, handing Tom the reins of a gentle bay mare. After Tom had swung himself into the saddle, the stable owner helped Merope up onto the horse. The mare stomped one of her back feet and Merope gasped, clinging to Tom's waist with both arms.

The owner laughed. "There's no need to fear, ma'am. Cunegonde is as gentle as a dove, and your husband seems to be an experienced rider. Please enjoy the scenery."

Tom nodded to him and urged the horse into a walk. "Are you comfortable back there, darling?"

"Yes," Merope answered truthfully. She was warm as could be, having wrapped herself in several layers with fur-lined boots on her feet, and felt more at ease as the horse continued to walk on leisurely. They rode in a companionable silence and Merope looked all around them with great pleasure. They had entered some sort of pretty park by the river and though no one else was riding, as the stable owner had lamented, there were many people about. She watched a young couple handing small pieces of bread to their son, who gleefully tossed them to the birds, and smiled involuntarily. "I wouldn't mind if we spent the rest of our lives in France," she remarked. "It's so peaceful and lovely here."

"Wouldn't you miss the country?" Tom asked her. "I would. I like Paris but I think I would feel rather homesick for green fields and rolling countryside. I'd rather raise our children there."

"I suppose you're right," she conceded. "Are - are we going to return to Little Hangleton, Tom?"

"I don't want to go back there. Not after the way my parents treated you."

"Won't you miss them dreadfully?" Merope leaned her head against his back. "They must be missing you."

He was silent for some time. "I was thinking we could go to my family's summer home," he said finally, leaving her question unanswered. "My father owns a cottage on the Irish coast, just south of Dublin. We haven't been there for some time and it's all shut up now, but I'm sure Henry and Gretchen could fix it up nicely for us. I've plenty of money to last us through the year."

"I would love that," she whispered.

He squeezed her hand affectionately. "Good. It's settled then."

They continued on to the end of the park in silence, each wrapped in their own thoughts. When she had asked Tom about Little Hangleton, Merope had half feared that he would take her back there. She dreaded the idea of another row with the Riddles, of the accusation in his mother's eyes. Most of all, she was terrified that they might come back to find Marvolo, released from prison three months early and livid about her escape. She had left him a brief message back at the cottage, telling him in no uncertain terms that she would never come back. She felt sure that if Marvolo heard of their return to the village, he would hunt them down and kill them both.

The distant sound of hoofbeats distracted Merope from her thoughts. She looked up to see a man on the other side of the park astride a shining black horse. "Look, Tom, another rider," she said, pointing.

"Oh, yes. He must have had the same idea," he returned, watching the man canter in the opposite direction. The rider's head was turned and he was looking directly at them. A flash of dark red hair showed from underneath his hat.

"Do you know him, Tom?"

He shook his head. "No, I don't think so."

Merope gazed at the man, who had cantered off into the distance but still threw glances at them over his shoulder. "I wonder why he was staring at us so," she said softly.

"Invariably rude fellow," Tom commented. "Well, I think we've been out long enough, my dear. How does a trip to the museum suit you?"

"Very well," she said, cheerfully resigning herself to another heavenly afternoon with her husband.

* * *

A swelling crowd gathered on the ports of Wicklow to greet the incoming ship. People strained against the rope barriers, craning their necks to catch a glimpse of a friend or loved one.

Bethe stood on the deck with the other passengers, waiting for the signal to depart. She turned to see Rose Ingram coming towards her, a small suitcase in hand. "My aunt is taking such an awfully long time to pack. We won't be able to depart together," Rose said apologetically. "I'll say goodbye here."

"Farewell," returned Bethe, shaking her hand, "and I hope you'll enjoy yourselves in Dublin."

"My aunt and uncle, perhaps. I'm not sure I will enjoy it much." Rose sighed. "I'm expecting a letter from Cecilia as soon as we arrive, and I'm not looking forward to hearing her gloat."

Bethe frowned. "She would do that?"

"Not openly, no. Cecilia's too well-bred to rub salt into the wound," explained the younger girl. "If she talks about ... if she talks about him, it will be done as innocently as she can." She waved away the subject. "Let's talk about something else. I'm sick to death of thinking about them. Is your cousin going to meet you here?"

"Yes, Theodore should be down there somewhere. His wife and son are waiting for us at home."

Rose smiled at the mention of the child. "How old is the little boy?"

"Just two years old and quite a handful, according to Theodore," Bethe answered, grinning. "It will be so nice to see them all. And I don't feel guilty about spending Christmas away from my mother, as she's going abroad herself with a friend."

"I'm very glad for you," Rose said warmly. "I must be going. I've enjoyed our talks very much."

"And so have I." Bethe gave her a hug. "Have a happy Christmas!" She watched the girl turn and weave through the queue of passengers. She had been surprised to find that spoiled, vain Rose was in fact a very nice girl, and her company had made her miss Merope. Wherever her young friend was, Bethe hoped sincerely that she was happy.

The passengers began descending onto the dock and Bethe was pushed along the crowd. She looked in both directions, wondering if she would know her cousin; he had seemed very confident in his letter that they would recognize each other. After a few moments of searching, her eyes alighted on a ginger-haired man in an outlandish purple waistcoat and pinstriped pants. He was short and plump with a kind face and appeared to be looking for someone as well. Their eyes met and he smiled instantly, striding forward.

"Isabethe?" he guessed, holding out his hand.

She took it with a smile. "Call me Bethe. And you are Theodore?"

"Just Theo, my dear, just Theo," he answered cheerfully, releasing her hand and hugging her instead. "What a thing it is to finally meet at last! I doubt your father nor mine ever expected the two of us to reunite. Let me look at you." He stepped back and scrutinized her face, beaming. "You look nothing like me, which is a blessing! A great deal too thin, but a few of Violet's meals ought to fix that. Come, give me your bags."

Bethe followed him towards the entrance of the port, watching the crowds get thinner as they went further and further away from the ship. "Violet is your wife?" she asked. "And your little boy is -?"

"Roger," answered Theo. "Roger Theodore Trelawney. You'll meet them both as soon as we Apparate home -"

"Apparate?" Bethe repeated. "What's that?"

Her cousin paused and looked at her. "You poor thing, I had almost forgotten you were raised by a Muggle. A non-magic person," he added quickly, as though afraid to offend her. "Apparition is a special method of transportation used by wizards. You can go from here to there in a matter of seconds. Take my hand." They were standing behind a small shed on the edge of the path where no one could see them.

Bethe obediently took her cousin's hand, wondering what on earth was coming next. Suddenly she felt as though she were being compressed into a very tight space. Her vision blurred and it felt as though walls were squeezing in upon her. She could still vaguely feel Theo's hand and a tingling, pulling sensation in her stomach. And then the discomfort was gone and the two of them stood in front of a very pretty cottage surrounded by trees.

"Are we there yet?" she asked shakily.

Before he could answer, a small dark-haired woman came running out of the cottage with a little boy in her arms. She beamed at the newcomer. "You must be Bethe! Welcome to our home," she said excitedly. "You must be exhausted from your journey and half-starved too, poor thing. I have breakfast all ready so just come in and make yourself at home, my dear."

Having slightly recovered from their abrupt traveling, Bethe shook hands warmly with her. "Thank you so much. I'd love to have breakfast, but I just want to drop off my things and wash up first."

"Of course, of course," Theo exclaimed, sweeping her luggage into the house. "Come along and I'll show you to your room. Violet has spent ever so much time fretting over every detail for you."

Bethe followed him into the quaint little house to a narrow, spiraling staircase. She caught a glimpse of a cozy kitchen and a table laid for breakfast on her way upstairs. The upper level contained only a small landing and a door, and Theo led her into the round tower room. It had windows facing in all directions, a comfortable bed, and a small desk and chair.

"It's a bit small -" her cousin began apologetically.

"I love it," Bethe interrupted him, smiling. "I think I shall be very comfortable here." There was a small window-seat with plenty of cushions and she sat down eagerly, looking out at the trees beneath the window.

"I'll leave you to your washing up and a quick rest, then." Theo deposited the suitcases by the bed with a smile and left the room, closing the door behind him.

When she was finally alone, Bethe yawned and leaned against the soft cushions, realizing how tired she was from the journey. Perhaps I'll just close my eyes for a minute, she told herself, and then go down for breakfast.

Just for a minute...

* * *

Later that evening in the hotel, the Riddles decided to attend the Christmas party downstairs, having been persuaded by Edward and Alexandra MacGregor. The theme of the party was a masquerade in red and green and though Tom had no objection to wearing the festive colors, he drew the line at donning a mask. "Damn silly idea. Cover people's faces and have everyone tripping over each other's feet and recognizing no one?"

"It is silly," Merope agreed, although she privately wished for a little domino mask herself. She thought that if her face were hidden, perhaps she wouldn't feel half as awkward. The feeling increased when she saw that almost everyone else had come to the party in masks, including the MacGregors.

"Where are your masks?" Edward demanded as soon as he came upon them in the lobby. He was dressed in a sort of clown outfit and his eyes peered out from behind a dark green mask.

"We don't have any. Stupid idea," returned Tom, grinning. "What in the world are you supposed to be?"

"Harlequin, of course," the young man responded, gesturing to his striped outfit, "and this is Colombina."

Alexandra, who wore a low-cut deep green gown and a simple black domino, gave them a dramatic curtsy. "Good evening."

Tom kissed her hand. "Delighted to make your acquaintance."

"I see you're being a wet-blanket once again, Tom Riddle," she said playfully, looking him up and down in his normal evening clothes. "What must we do to convince you to have a little fun?"

"Unfortunately Paris is clean out of the Roman gladiator costume I wanted," Tom returned.

Merope watched the exchange in silence, feeling a little resentful that none of them had even bothered to acknowledge her. As the crowd began moving into the ballroom, she followed closely behind the three of them so as not to get separated. The sight of the room took her breath away. There were enormous chandeliers and bright red poinsettia in every corner, and along one wall was a long table fairly groaning under the weight of food. A quarter of that table could feed five people for months, she thought in amazement.

"Hungry, dear?" Tom asked, smiling down at her.

She saw Alexandra watching them out of the corner of her eye and shook her head. "No, not yet."

"Feel like dancing?"

"I just want to sit a while and look around," she responded. "You go ahead, if you like."

Tom led Alexandra out to the dance floor and Edward went off to chat with some friends, so Merope was left quite by herself. She found a chair in the corner of the room and sat down, feeling hopelessly out of place. Everything in the room seemed to be moving - tapping feet, swirling skirts, waving hands. In all her quiet life, she had never seen so much commotion in one place. The wealthiest revelers had come to the party tonight in their most extravagant costumes, and she was overwhelmed by the sheer decadence of it all. She watched in fascination as a woman dressed in Elizabethan costume whirled around the dance floor with her partner, dressed as a knight, her gold skirts ballooning across the carpet.

"Pardon me."

Merope looked up and saw a tall, thin young man gazing down at her. "Yes?"

His dark eyes were moving behind the black velvet mask and he almost seemed uncertain. "Are you Mrs. Riddle, by any chance?"

"Yes, I am," she answered, staring at the dark cape he wore over simple evening clothes. His hair gleamed dark red in the light of the chandeliers. "Who are you?"

"My name is Ralph Elliott. I've been hoping to meet you for a long time."

Merope frowned. "I'm afraid I don't -"

He extended his hand. "Would you do me the honor of dancing with me? I would very much like to talk to you."

Timidly she accepted his hand and allowed him to lead her to the dance floor. Merope had never learned how to dance but with the young man's guidance, gave a decent pretense of knowing which foot to put where. She looked up into his face anxiously, searching for a clue, but the mask completely hid his expression. "How do you know me?" she inquired. "I'm afraid I've never heard your name before."

"No, of course you haven't," Ralph replied. "How could you, when the two of us were never supposed to meet?"

Merope furrowed her brow. "Why ever not?"

"I am part of a past that some people would rather leave undisturbed," he responded. "As soon as I found out about you, I had to come."

"I still don't understand," she confessed. Over Ralph's shoulder, she saw Tom looking at them through the crowd. "How did you find out about me?"

"You were a long-forgotten memory," he said. "If not for the photograph I would never have known you existed. I would never have come to find you. I went to Little Hangleton and searched for your cottage. It was empty and I thought that I had come to a dead end, but the villagers told me everything I needed to know."

"Which villagers?" Merope asked eagerly, thinking of Bethe. "Was it a young woman, perhaps? An apothecary of sorts?"

"No, just some farmers who liked to gossip too much," answered Ralph deprecatingly. "They told me that the girl called Merope Gaunt had run off to marry the Squire's son. I searched every town in the vicinity and discovered that a marriage had occurred in Great Hangleton."

Merope saw Tom bending down to talk to Alexandra, perhaps making excuses, and he began to make his way towards them. "But how did you find us here?"

"I've been following you since your ship stopped in Cherbourg. Many people know you and your husband, for some reason. You're a very memorable couple," Ralph explained, his thin lips smiling. "I saw you riding together in the park -"

"That was you! On the other horse, staring at us!"

"Yes." He saw her looking over his shoulder and turned to see Tom approaching them. He exhaled, seeming frustrated. "Mrs. Riddle, we will have to find another opportunity to talk."

"How will I find you?" she asked.

"I will find you. Goodbye." And in a flash, he had disappeared.

Merope looked this way and that, wondering where he had gone. Tom came up to her with a smile, saying, "I thought you didn't want to dance, darling. Otherwise I would have asked you." He looked carefully at her face, frowning. "You look pale, Merope."

"I'm all right, Tom, honestly," she said faintly, forcing a smile. "I'll dance with you now."

He put his arms around her, looking around them. "Who was that man you were dancing with? He fairly disappeared into thin air when he saw me coming."

Merope leaned her head against his arm listlessly. "I don't know," she murmured. "I don't know."

* * *

The snow came down in feathery drifts, gently caressing the face of a beautiful dark-haired girl. She held her arms out and laughed, her face turned to the sky, and spun in a circle. She reached down and picked up a baby wrapped in warm flannels, kissing its rosy face. "Look, darling," she said, pointing at the snowflakes. "Look how pretty they are."

A man crouched behind some nearby bushes, watching the two of them. When the girl put the baby down again and danced in the snow, the man's eyes never left her. He was holding something in his fist, something made of glass. Suddenly he ran out and began dancing with the girl. The two of them spun together in the falling snow, hands joined, laughing and ignoring the baby still on the ground. The baby began to cry and cry, but neither of them heard it.

Bethe longed to run out from where she stood, to pick up the child and comfort it, but she could not move. She watched the man and the girl walk away, completely forgetting the baby. Every sob the child uttered sent an ache through Bethe's heart. The snow began to fall harder, burying the little creature from sight. "No!" Bethe shouted and when she tried to go help the child, this time her feet obeyed her. She dug through the snow to try to save the baby, but there was nothing but an empty mask there.

"Where is my child?" a woman cried. Bethe turned around to find the same girl who had danced in the snow, except she looked older, careworn. "Where is my son?"

"He is gone," she answered. "He left this for you."

The woman took the mask from her and wept and wept over it. "I forgot him," she sobbed. "I forgot them all. I don't know where I have been..."

"You were dancing with a man," Bethe explained. "You danced with him and forgot..."

But the woman wasn't listening. She was looking at a photograph she had taken from her pocket and the people in the picture were moving. The man who had danced in the snow was in the picture, and with him were two children, a boy and a girl. The man looked quite different than before; his face was hard and cruel and his fingers gripped each child's shoulder tightly.

"Who are they?" Bethe asked.

"Long-forgotten memories," the woman answered.

Bethe awoke with a start to find Violet quietly laying a tray of food on the bed. "Oh! Did I fall asleep?" she asked guiltily, jumping up from the window-seat. "I'm so sorry!"

"Don't apologize, dear," protested Violet. "You looked so exhausted that we didn't want to wake you. I brought you something in case you were hungry when you woke up." She frowned at the younger woman. "You look a bit peaky, Bethe. Bad dreams?"

"I think so," Bethe said slowly. "There was a lot of snow and a baby got buried. I remember that. And a woman came back with a moving photograph..."

Violet laughed. "All photographs move, dear. At least they do in the wizarding world," she added.

"Do they?" Bethe stared into space thoughtfully. She had forgotten who the woman was, but she clearly remembered a man and two children on the photograph. The girl had especially caught her memory, looking small and forlorn with her eyes almost gazing in opposite directions. Had Bethe been dreaming about Merope as a child? And who was the woman with the photograph? Could she possibly be... "The mother," whispered Bethe.

"Beg pardon?" Violet was looking at her strangely. "Are you feeling all right?"

Bethe gazed at her. "Violet, if I wanted to do research on a particular wizarding family ... how would I go about it?"

"Hmmm. You could try writing to Hogwarts, I suppose, if the family is from Britain. Why?"

"Oh ... no reason," replied Bethe, shrugging. She turned her attention to her food, trying to shake off the uncomfortably vague feeling that she had just glimpsed something very important about her young friend.

Chapter 12: Whispers in the Night
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Author's Notes: I own the plot, original characters, banner, and all chapter images throughout the story. Everything else is owned by J.K. Rowling. Please be aware that I have blended in my own original ideas with canon information and I'll be happy to discuss anything in a review or a PM.

Chapter Twelve: Whispers in the Night
by Girldetective85

"Without darkness, nothing comes to birth;
as without light, nothing flowers."

- May Sarton

One night, Merope heard the locket call to her in her dreams. Remember, it whispered. Remember ... She lifted her head from the pillow and looked around the room. It was still dark and almost completely silent except for Tom's steady breathing beside her. She waited a few moments before lying back down, deciding that she must have been dreaming again. She pulled the covers up around her neck and moved closer to Tom, snuggling against his side. Sleep was just about to overtake her when the voice came again, familiar and insistent. Remember!

Slowly she eased herself up on an elbow and looked in the direction of her dressing table. There was something glinting on the surface, something that shone in the only ray of moonlight that had escaped through the shutters...

But how could it be? she wondered. Since the night she had taken it off, the locket had been wrapped carelessly in a pair of stockings and stuffed into the back of a drawer. She had never once removed it. She stared hesitantly at the shiny object before slipping out of bed and walking towards it. I have to know...

The locket was lying there on the table, its chain spread in a neat loop, as though she had put it there herself. Merope put a hand on her wildly beating heart. Tom would never have touched it; he detested the thing. And Gretchen would rather die before thinking of going through her employer's belongings. A thief would have recognized its value and taken it, not laid it out upon the table for show.

Hello, my dear.

She grabbed it from the table and went into the bathroom, shutting the door behind her. "What - how - but I ..."

Your eloquence astounds me, Merope.

It grew warmer in her hand until it was unbearably hot. She dropped it into the sink, crying out in pain. "W-what do you want?" she quavered.

You have been extremely inconsiderate lately. Have you forgotten your old friend so quickly?

"N-no," she lied, rubbing her burnt hand on her nightdress. "I've been busy..."

You're a little liar.

Why had she never noticed how evil the voice sounded until now? It was an androgynous voice, slightly high-pitched and grating on the ears. "Well, what of it?" she asked, trying to sound braver than she felt. "I'm married now. I can't be talking to a bloody necklace all the time, can I?"

Watch your language. Remember to whom you are speaking. Once upon a time, I was the only one who valued you! I believed in you even when that stupid Muggle you married laughed and jeered at your family.

Merope leaned against the wall, her knees weak. The voice became gentle, cajoling; it was the friendly voice that had helped her through many a hopeless night in her father's cottage.

I only want to take care of you, Merope. I want to be your friend again. How could you be so cruel?

"I'm sorry," she whispered awkwardly, not really knowing what to say. "Tom and I..."

Yes, Tom, it replied mockingly. A simple-minded, spoiled, self-indulgent brat...

"Don't talk about him that way!" she snapped.

My poor child. You really do love him, don't you? Ah, well... whatever makes you happy. And I want you to be happy...

"I am happy!" cried Merope. "I love Tom, and he loves me." The locket responded with a chilling laugh that sent shivers down her spine. "You don't believe me. Well, I don't care! I know he loves me and that's all that matters."

Such touching conviction. I'll believe you when you pour that potion down the drain and still say that about him.

Merope stared at the glittering emerald.

What is this interesting silence, child? Don't tell me that everything depends on that love potion...

"He loves me," she repeated defiantly.

Prove it!

The mocking, singsong voice was driving her mad. "Fine!" she shouted. "I'll prove it to you!"

Footsteps pattered to the other side of the door and there was a knock. "Merope?" Tom called. "Are you all right in there? Why are you shouting?"

"I'm fine," she answered, staring at the locket in the sink. "I just needed a glass of water. I'm sorry to have woken you, darling."

"All right," Tom said uncertainly, and she heard him padding softly back to bed.

Better go back to bed yourself, child. You'll catch your death of cold standing barefoot like that...

The voice was solicitous and Merope realized that she was shivering in her thin nightdress. "I will. But I want you to know that you're wrong about him," she said quietly. "He really does love me."

Of course, of course, my dear. I won't say anything more on the subject. Put me back in the drawer; I won't come out again.

Merope reached for it tentatively, half afraid that it was still burning hot, but the heavy gold was like ice on her fingers. Slowly she went back into the bedroom and replaced it in its nest of stockings.

"Sweetheart, come to bed," Tom's voice called sleepily from across the room.

If you ever need me, you know where to find me.

She replaced it in the drawer and went back to bed, but despite trying hard for three or four hours, nothing could compel her to return to sleep that night. When morning came she was still wide awake, lying with disturbed thoughts and a troubled heart.

* * *

Marvolo Gaunt sat in a corner of his tiny cell, mumbling under his breath. He had no idea what he was saying or where he was. It seemed that only half of his brain was functioning. He was aware of the slimy stone floor and the wet pools of unidentified liquid that lay dangerously close to his leg, but he couldn't hear anything. He could barely see anything in the darkness except for the outline of a heavy door with no handle. Thinking was out of the question. Not one coherent thought had passed through his brain for four months; the icy chill made sure of that. There were goosebumps all along his arms and legs, proof that a small portion of his mind was still working, but aside from that he felt almost nothing.

Day and night, ghosts blossomed in his mind. They were wispy apparitions of people, places, and things he had once known. The cottage in Little Hangleton. The barman at the village pub, wiping glasses with a disapproving stare. The ugly, pockmarked wench with whom he had deigned to spend a night. His son sitting by the fireplace, twisting a dead snake.

Pieces of the past began to materialize and he saw faces and heard voices that he had not remembered for years. He couldn't make out what they were saying, but he heard and recognized the people to whom they belonged. The wheeze of his grandmother on her deathbed. The scornful voice of the Headmaster who gave him his second detention in a week. The sharp, rapid percussion of his best friend Rowan's voice as he planned out another cruel prank for them. And there was a woman's laughter, delicate, ephemeral...

A small window slid open in the door and the swarthy, mean-eyed face of the guard peered inside. "Dinnertime!" he sneered, shoving a sloshing bowl through the opening. The foul scent of rotting meat pervaded the cell.

Marvolo stared at him indifferently and mumbled something.

"What?" snapped the guard, always on alert for cheek from the prisoners.

"Locket," he mumbled. "Locket!"

"Oh, you can bet I'll lock it," the guard returned, slamming the window shut. "Damn bloody lunatic. Thank Merlin he'll be leaving soon ... gives me the creeps..."

Marvolo hadn't heard a single word of this speech. In a rare moment of consciousness brought on by the light that had flooded into the cell, he had remembered the ring on his finger. He twisted it, lost in memories of his two greatest treasures - this fat black stone, and the glimmering gold locket that had graced his worthless daughter's neck. He longed to see it again, the initial that was a symbol of their ancient family.

As the cell returned to its customary darkness, his mind buried itself once more buried in shadowy dreams. Though he did not know it, he would remain in Azkaban for two more months, just a floor away from his own son who sat motionlessly in another cell. And then Marvolo would make his triumphant, swaggering return to Little Hangleton, where his damn slattern of a daughter had better be waiting with a hot dinner and a roaring fire.

What else would she be doing?

* * *

In early January, the Riddles left Paris and took a train bound for Italy. If Merope had been in awe of France's beauty, it was nothing compared to what she felt when they arrived in Genoa on a sunny winter's morning. The towering cathedrals, the stately palaces, and the stone piazzas were even more beautiful than she could ever have imagined. Their hotel was infinitely grander than the one in Paris and when she stepped into their immense suite, she discovered that the windows and balcony looked right onto the sea.

"Lovely, isn't it?" Tom asked, putting an arm around her shoulders. "I was here with my mother a long time ago, but it looks like little has changed."

"It's wonderful," she agreed, watching the little boats on the deep blue water. "Do you think we could go sailing sometime, Tom?"

He kissed her forehead. "Anything you want, love. Will you be all right here for a little while? I'm off to the post office for my mail."

"Yes, I'll be fine. Hurry back," she answered, hugging him. She stayed by the window to watch him cross the street, smiling when he looked up to find their room and waved at her. With a sigh, Merope turned and looked back into their room.

The locket was lying on the bedside table.

She gasped and rushed towards it, but when she came closer, she saw that it was only the shiny handle of her hairbrush catching the sunlight. Breathing deeply, she sat down on the edge of the bed and tried to calm herself. What is wrong with you? she chided herself. True to its word, the locket had left her alone since their conversation that night in Paris. She had placed it into the box containing her wand and the two phials, and there it had stayed for weeks. But the damage had been done and Merope hadn't been able to sleep peacefully since then. Often she found herself lying wide awake far into the night, watching Tom sleep and wondering each time whether it would be the last. Would he still be lying next to her when they were old and gray? My sweet, precious Tom. My heart, my one love.

When she did sleep, she tossed and turned and dreamt about the locket. It had a mouth; the snake's jaws gaped wide open and it drank all of the potion Bethe had given her. When every last drop was gone, it laughed mockingly at her. What now? it asked. What will you do now?

The thought of stopping Tom's dose both tortured and tantalized her. What would happen? How would he react? She both longed to know and feared the answer. She thought that, deep within her heart, she truly believed he would continue loving her. Didn't he prove it daily whenever he kissed her, held her in his arms, and talked to her about his dreams and hopes and fears? He acted like a sensible man who was madly and sincerely in love, not like a person who was merely acting. And even before the potion, he had come to her willingly, abandoned Cecilia for her company and her conversation. How would this be any different?

Merope rose slowly from the bed and went over to her closet, where she had hidden the porcelain box. She ran her fingers over the cold phials of amber liquid. Tom's last dose had been at supper the evening before, when they were on the train. She gazed down at the potion and made her decision. She had to do it before her courage failed. I have to know. She got up and went into the adjoining dressing room where her maid was laying out Merope's toiletries on the table there.

"Gretchen," she said, handing her the box, "I want you to go down to the front desk and tell them to put this in the safe. Put it under my name and tell them to be extremely careful with it."

The maid curtsied. "Yes, madam."

When she was alone again, Merope hugged herself and shivered. Tonight Tom would drink pure water, untainted champagne, unsullied wine.

Tonight there would be no love potion.

* * *

"Little cat," Roger announced, holding up a children's book for Bethe to see. He climbed confidently into her lap and nestled against her.

Bethe laughed. "Yes, that's a little cat," she agreed, pointing to the illustration of a gray tabby. She turned the page and pointed to the illustration of a lion. "And what's this, Roger?"

He scrunched his face up in concentration. "Bear?" he guessed.

"Close, but that's actually a big cat," she explained. "See his ears and his whiskers?" She turned the pages and described the animals to him, inhaling the soft baby scent of his hair.

The cottage was quiet without Theo and Violet, who had gone to see a concert. Bethe had declined their invitation and stayed home to play with Roger instead. After a week's visit, the little boy had grown accustomed to her presence and clamored for "Bedda" whenever she was out of his sight, knowing how much attention he could get from her.

As Roger cooed over a picture of a puppy, Bethe's mind returned once more to another friend who had loved books. She had dreamt about Merope's mother again, for she felt sure that was the identity of the pretty dark-haired woman. But who was the baby in the snow? Was it Merope herself? Or did it have a more subtle meaning - wasted youth, perhaps? The childhood of suffering and neglect that Merope had lived through?

"Elly-fant," announced Roger, pointing at the book. "Look, Bedda."

"Yes, sweetheart," agreed Bethe. "That's an elephant."

Somehow, she felt sure that Merope's mother was significant. Had the woman died or had she simply abandoned her family? And if the latter, what could possibly have driven her to leave behind two children to the mercy of such a father?

Bethe had explained the story to her cousin and his wife, neither of whom knew the name of Gaunt among their many classmates and friends. Theo had agreed to Violet's suggestion about sending an inquiry to Hogwarts, feeling sure that the Headmaster would certainly help to the best of his ability. So Bethe had written a quick message and given it to Theo's tawny owl to deliver, feeling certain that the response would greatly enlighten her.

"Owl," Roger said suddenly, echoing her thoughts.

She glanced down at the book and saw his chubby fingers on a picture of a whale. "No, darling," she began before seeing his eyes on the window. There was a fluttering of wings against the dark glass and she recognized the outline of Nuntius, Theo's owl. "Oh! Get up for a moment, Roger." The child climbed off her lap and she got up to let the owl in. It landed gracefully on a table and handed her a thick envelope. Both it and the letter inside were of heavy, cream-colored stock with a strange gold-leaf seal that shimmered in the firelight: a lion rampant, a curving snake, a proud eagle, and a round-eyed badger all surrounding the letter "H."

The letter was covered with a bold black scrawl, and she read:

22nd December, 1925

My dear Miss Lawney,

I write in response to your inquiry. I must admit that I was very surprised to receive it, not only because of the rarity of such requests, but because you are the second person to have inquired about the same gentleman this month. I will tell you what I told the other requester.

Having just begun my first term as Headmaster in September, I unfortunately have no personal knowledge of Mr. Marvolo Gaunt. Luckily I was able to speak to my predecessor, Professor Phineas Nigellus Black, who served as Headmaster for many long years and remembers well the person in question.

Mr. Marvolo Gaunt was a member of Slytherin House from September 1884 until his graduation in June 1891. He was a decent student and finished school with respectable marks - particularly in Potions and Charms - although Professor Black maintains that he suffered from acute laziness. While at Hogwarts, Mr. Gaunt participated in a wizard chess club that existed at one time and was rather skilled at the game. Professor Black supposes that it was because he knew exactly how to manipulate his opponents. He says that the young man was generally well-liked among his housemates despite a pronounced tendency to believe himself above the rules, being a direct descendant of the great wizard who founded the House of Slytherin.

From his frequent correspondences with Rowan Wormwood, his closest friend in school and our current Arithmancy professor, we learned that Mr. Gaunt was unemployed until 1895. In October of that year, he obtained a position at a curiosity shop in London. Professor Wormwood ventures to guess that this job lasted until 1901, when Mr. Gaunt informed him that he was returning to his birthplace. I believe that you are familiar with Little Hangleton? That was the village from which Mr. Gaunt's final letter to Professor Wormwood arrived, announcing his impending marriage to a Miss Annabelle Walker.

Professor Wormwood vaguely recalls that Miss Walker was also at Hogwarts, though he knows very little about her because she was younger and a member of Hufflepuff House.

My predecessor knows for a fact that the Gaunts had two children to whom were issued invitations to attend Hogwarts. Both spots were declined, however, and given to others. There is no more information on either child.

Please find enclosed a photograph which you may or may not find to be helpful.

I hope that this letter has been useful to you and I wish you a happy holiday.


Armando Antoninus Dippet

Bethe felt eagerly inside the envelope and nearly jumped in surprise when she saw the photograph and the people moving around in it. There were seven boys and three girls ranging in age from twelve to seventeen, dressed in matching school uniforms. They were gathered around a table on which sat a magnificent chess set. Bethe guessed that these were the members of the wizard chess club that Headmaster Dippet had mentioned. She searched the grinning faces for Marvolo Gaunt and picked him out easily, astonished at the great difference between the good-looking young man and the angry, red-eyed father of two who had frequented the pub. The young Marvolo was of medium height with dark brown hair, and his eyes and the lines about his mouth bore a strong resemblance to Merope's. In the photograph, he was repeatedly pushing his schoolmates to one side, demanding the center seat for himself and smiling wickedly for the camera.

"A direct descendant of the great wizard who founded the House of Slytherin," Bethe read aloud. "Who or what is Slytherin?"

As she continued to watch the photograph in fascination, one of the girls caught her eye and she stared in shock. The pretty face with its elegant features, the long dark hair, the ready smile - it was the woman from Bethe's dream, materialized into a photograph as a girl of no more than thirteen. While most of the other children had green or blue striped ties, her uniform had a yellow striped tie. She stood a little apart from the rest, smiling and waving at Bethe. Neither she nor Marvolo took any notice of each other; instead, she seemed to be friendly with a blond boy of about her age.

Eagerly Bethe searched the bottom and the back of the photograph for any captions or notations, but there were none. There was no doubt in her mind, however, that this was the girl who would grow up to be Marvolo Gaunt's wife.

She was eager to show the results of her search to Theo and Violet and did so as soon as they returned home. To her astonishment, they were struck by the name of Merope's mother.

"Annabelle Walker was a few years ahead of us at Hogwarts," exclaimed Violet, exchanging glances with her husband. "Are you quite sure that she married this Marvolo Gaunt of yours?"

Bethe nodded and held out the letter. "Headmaster Dippet has it from a very reliable source. Apparently one of the current professors was a friend of Gaunt's."

Violet read through the letter in silence and handed it to her husband, frowning.

"How very odd," Theo murmured. "Annabelle was a very close acquaintance of ours. We were even invited to her wedding."

"But you said you didn't know Marvolo Gaunt!" Bethe exclaimed.

"We don't, dear," said Violet, looking at her husband again, "because we attended her wedding to another schoolmate of ours. This blond boy sitting next to her in the chess club picture, right here. His name was Charles Elliott."

* * *

They had dinner that night in a quaint little restaurant just a few doors from their hotel. It was a quiet, peaceful sort of place where each table was curtained off from the others and bathed in soft candlelight. Tom was enthusiastically tucking in to a large plate of pasta, telling her all about the places they would go tomorrow.

"We'll have to go see the Cattedrale di San Lorenzo," he said, sipping his wine. "I know you'll love it. It's just amazing what they can do with stone."

Merope smiled and nodded, pretending to listen as her husband continued chatting. She had been watching him the entire day, paying close attention for any changes in his usual manner. Evening was closing in upon them and still she hadn't noticed any signs of him being in the least affected by the lack of potion. She wanted to jump up and shout with joy, but instead she played the part of the calm, dutiful wife. Inwardly, every beat of her heart was fairly singing. I knew it all along. Tonight when Tom is asleep, I'll take out that stupid locket and tell it that I've been right all this time!

Tom beamed at her from across the table. "How was your meal, sweetheart?"

"It's delicious," she said eagerly. "I've never had seafood before. I love it."

"Do you want to walk before we go to bed? Are you wrapped up well enough?"

"Yes, let's walk," she agreed, slipping her arms into her woolen coat. Tom paid the bill and they strolled out of the restaurant arm in arm, walking in companionable silence. The streets were relatively crowded despite the chill, and more than one person turned their head to gaze at the happy-looking couple. The man was so handsome, with dark hazel eyes and aristocratic features that attracted more than one female glance, while his young wife looked so plain and awkward beside him. They were a mismatched pair - there was no doubt about it - but they looked so very much in love and thus earned the indulgence of everyone who watched them.

"I could stay in Italy forever," Merope remarked, gazing at the moon on the calm waters. "It's so lovely here."

Tom smiled affectionately. "That's what you said about Paris," he replied.

"You're right. I'd be happy wherever I went, as long as you came with me."

"Likewise, darling," said Tom, squeezing her hand. "And that's just what I want to hear, because I'm getting a little anxious to set up our own nest. Have you tired of our glittering life abroad? Do you remember that cottage I mentioned, the summer house that my family owns on the coast?" He put an arm around her and drew her closer as they walked. "How would you like to go home?"

She beamed up at him. "I would love that," she answered sincerely.

They walked over to a bench overlooking the water and sat down with their arms around each other. "Sometimes I miss Little Hangleton so much," Tom murmured, his cheek resting on her hair. "I think every man needs a home, Merope. Something he can return to, something that will be waiting for him."

Merope leaned against him, listening.

"I used to hate that place so much," he continued. "My parents bickering endlessly. Rules and regulations and strict mealtimes. Parties where I knew and cared for no one. I used to ride out in the fields beyond the village, dreaming that I would escape someday, and now that I have..." He trailed off.

"Tom," she said in a soft voice, "if you want to go back there, we can."

He was silent for a few moments. "No," he finally responded. "No. There's no reason for us to go back there so that everyone may judge us..."

Merope shook her head and turned to look into his eyes. "It's all right, Tom. If you go, I'll go with you. I don't care what they say and I don't need to see your parents or my father. I can stay with my friend in the village," she added, thinking longingly of Bethe. How wonderful it would be to see her again!

"You're sweet," he whispered, kissing her. "But no, Merope. We'll go to our own home. Why should I feel lonely when I have you?" He hugged her close. "I just - just wondered how my parents were, that's all. But I can write to them and tell them that I'm safe and happy. And I wish I could have Apollo sent to me ... I miss that old horse of mine. And - and I miss my friends ... and even Cecilia..." The Tom Riddle that the world knew - the bold, confident, brash young man who thought he owned the world - sat there with tears in his eyes, his heart aching for the people and the home he had left behind.

Merope cradled his face in her hands, tears filling her own eyes at how sad and lost he looked. "Oh Tom, why didn't you ever tell me how homesick you were?" she cried. "We'll go back, we must go back..."

He laughed and wiped his eyes. "I'm sorry. I guess it came upon me all of a sudden. Forgive me for that, and forgive me for mentioning Cecilia - she can't be a great favorite with you..."

"Did you love her very much, Tom?" she whispered.

"I was fond of her," he answered quietly.

They sat together in silence, watching as a few lingering boats float toward the docks. It was a strange, alien feeling, this overwhelming guilt that overcame her. She had known for months that she was taking Tom away from his family, from everything he loved. Save for Bethe, Merope had left nothing behind in Little Hangleton that she regretted; but Tom, Tom had so much to lose and he had lost it all. She wondered if his parents would even take him back, whether they would even allow him inside their house after what had happened. No doubt Mary Riddle was still smarting from the horrible argument they'd had in the autumn; would love for her son override her prejudice for his wife?

"Don't be so sad, love," she begged him, hugging him with all her strength. "We'll go back to Little Hangleton, I promise you. It's on our way home, isn't it? You can see your parents, I swear. Please be happy again."

Tom smiled, but it did not reach his eyes. "Let's go to bed, sweetheart. I feel so tired."

They got up and began walking back towards the hotel. The lobby was almost empty on this quiet night and only a few people were sitting around on the chairs, loitering and waiting for friends. Merope followed her husband, her hand tightly holding his, still feeling terrible about how vulnerable he looked. Neither of them spoke in the lift despite the attendant's obvious desire to chat, and his cheery "Good night" went unanswered as they made their way to their room. Tom got ready for bed without saying a word and climbed in, staring straight at the ceiling. Still in her evening clothes, Merope sat beside him and stroked his hair. "Let's leave the day after tomorrow," she suggested. "I'll have everything packed by then, Gretchen can help me. We'll take the train back to France."

"The paperwork can't possibly be done that fast," Tom responded flatly.

"Have Henry do it," she urged. "He'll take care of it, Tom. All we need are the passports and some tickets..."

"I haven't even written to my parents yet."

Merope stared at him, frustrated by his petulance. "Write to them tomorrow, then!"

"Don't talk to me like that," Tom snapped, jerking the covers up around himself. "I'm not a child. I simply want the letter to arrive before we do so they can have some warning. We can't just march down there unannounced. Mother would pass out if I came back with you."

"I'm sorry, Tom. I didn't mean anything by that," she said hastily. "I just wanted to help -"

"Well, I don't need your help! If I want to go home, I can damn well do it on my own," he said.

Her eyes widened at his sharp tone. "On your own?"

"Yes, since you made it perfectly clear that there's nothing back there for you and that you'll only go to indulge me, like I'm a little boy who needs a bit of candy before he'll finish his vegetables."

"Tom, that's not fair," she exclaimed. "I told you that I was willing to stay with a friend."

"God, I am sick to death of discussing this with you." He gave his pillow a few angry punches and rolled onto his side away from her.

Merope got off the bed and stood there looking at his back, her heart pounding with shock. What just happened? she thought fearfully. He had never spoken to her in that way before. Where had that come from? They had been so happy all day, walking all over Genoa, and he had been so lively at dinner. Even when he had told her about missing home, he had been so gentle and loving. Why would he speak to me like that? she thought, shaking. She backed away from his motionless figure and looked into the mirror. Her face was pale and drawn, her eyes wide with fear. I look hideous. And then she saw it reflected in the glass - the locket, lying on her pillow right next to Tom. It was laughing at her, shrieking with high-pitched glee. Merope gasped and spun around, but her pillow was empty.

Clutching her heart, she took several deep breaths. Stop it, she told herself sternly. Stop it! Quickly she undressed for bed and turned out the light, climbing in beside Tom. She wrapped an arm around him and kissed the back of his neck, but he didn't move or acknowledge her. "I love you, Tom. So, so much," she whispered. He made no response, though she knew that he was still awake; it was the first time he hadn't said that he loved her back. The silence was breaking her heart and she slid away from him, curling into a ball and shaking with silent sobs. She tried to quiet herself but they were escaping, each shudder cutting her like a knife.

He rolled onto his back and stared at the ceiling. "I'm sorry, Merope," he muttered, but made no move to touch her. "I don't quite know what's wrong with me. I just feel so... odd."

She made a heroic effort to calm herself, to steady her breathing. "Odd? W-what d-do you mean?"

"I just kept thinking about home all day," he explained, eyes still fixed on the ceiling. "It hasn't crossed my mind more than once in the past month, but today was just -" His voice trailed off. "I felt so strange all day, like I wasn't supposed to be here. But I must have wanted to be here."

"Tom, you're scaring me," she whispered.

"I didn't want to ruin your day, so I said nothing," Tom continued, turning to look at her, "but once or twice, when I looked at you, it was like looking at a stranger. Someone I didn't really know, someone I didn't exactly understand. You know you're not a very open person, Merope." He laughed. "But then I thought, how could I not know you or understand you? I married you, didn't I? You are my wife. I fought my parents tooth and nail to have you. I disgraced my family's name to have you. I agreed to end my relationship with Cecilia so I could have one with you." He reached out and touched her face tentatively.

"You - you love me, don't you, Tom?" Merope clutched his hand desperately. "You married me because you loved me. Do you love me still?"

He remained silent, looking intently at her.

She grabbed his arm and shook him, longing to slap him for hesitating. "You love me, Tom! You said so, over and over!" she shouted. "You did everything that you said - fight your parents, disgrace your name - because you loved me! So just say it!"

It was driving her crazy, the puzzled way he stared at her. He hadn't looked at her that way since they were last in her father's cottage, when they had been new acquaintances and he was trying to make her out. She was a mystery to him then, and she was a mystery once more. He had suddenly awoken from a blissful dream of almost two months to discover himself far from home, married to a woman he scarcely knew. He had been intrigued by her in Little Hangleton, attracted to her quiet manners, to the pride that ran far beneath the surface, and perhaps - if he were to be honest with himself - to the obvious worship that she willingly showed him. But how had they gone from merely friends to married? The past two months were a disturbing blur to him.

Merope saw all of this and more in his eyes. She couldn't take it anymore.

"Where are you going?" Tom cried, sitting up in bed.

She had hastily risen to her feet, wrapping a bathrobe around herself and running for the door. The hallway was empty and though the lift had stopped on their floor, she ran towards the stairs. She couldn't be bothered with the chatty attendant just now. She ran down flight after flight, tripping once on the long hem of her bathrobe and earning a scraped knee for her troubles. On the ground level, she threw open the door and rushed into the lobby, ignoring the curious stares of the lingering guests. She hurried straight to the front desk, where the man sitting there stood in surprise. He knew the Riddles by sight and was astonished to see the well-dressed, quiet little wife disheveled and in her bathrobe.

"Signora Riddle!" he exclaimed, and said something in Italian.

Merope ignored him. "My maid brought a porcelain box down here yesterday morning. I want to retrieve it from the safe," she answered breathlessly. "I need it now!"

"Yes, yes, Signora, of course," the man replied hurriedly, turning and unlocking the door of a room behind him. "Just one moment." He was gone for an interminable five minutes before returning with the box, smiling.

Merope fairly grabbed it out of his hand and dashed back to the stairs. Her heart was pounding furiously in her chest and her hair was matted to her damp forehead, but she continued on, wrapping the porcelain box within the folds of her bathrobe. When she returned, Tom was standing by the window with his arms crossed. "Merope -" he began, but she ignored him. She rushed into the bathroom and slammed the door.

"Merope, please!" he begged, knocking on the door. "I didn't mean to upset you. I - I just don't know what's wrong with me. Please forgive me."

She filled a glass with hot water from the sink and opened the box. The locket lay just inside, but she avoided looking at it and it didn't speak to her. She grabbed a phial of amber liquid and uncorked it. Desperately, as though her life depended upon it, she released one drop into the glass of water.

Tom was still pounding on the door. He sounded afraid. "Merope! What are you doing in there? Speak to me! Merope!"

Slowly she opened the door and faced him silently.

"Thank God," he groaned. "Are you all right?"

"I just wanted a drink of water to calm myself," she said softly, holding the glass out to him. "And I think you should have one too."

Tom glanced at it briefly, his eyes returning to her face. "Don't worry about me," he said impatiently, "sit down and drink that yourself."

"No, Tom," she insisted. "This is for you. Please drink it, I'm begging you."

He sighed and took it with the air of indulging somebody who was ill. "Hot," he muttered, but drank it obligingly. When he had finished, he stared at the glass in confusion and then looked at her. In his eyes, she saw the Tom that she knew and loved, the one that loved her back with every fiber in his body.

Merope threw herself into his arms, sobbing her heart out.

"Sweetheart," he said in surprise, hugging her. "What -"

But she shook her head furiously and held him tighter, and he was quiet immediately. But despite her joy and relief, Merope's happiness had been soured.

She now knew the truth, and the truth was killing her deep inside.

Chapter 13: The Secret Love of Marvolo Gaunt
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Author's Notes: I own the plot, original characters, banner, and all chapter images throughout the story. Everything else is owned by J.K. Rowling. Please be aware that I have blended in my own original ideas with canon information and I'll be happy to discuss anything in a review or a PM.

This chapter should hopefully answer a lot of questions for you :) As always, I'd be grateful for any constructive criticism you may have. Thank you all very, very much for reading.

Chapter Thirteen: The Secret Love of Marvolo Gaunt
by Girldetective85

"There is a smile of love, and there is a smile of deceit
And there is a smile of smiles in which these two smiles meet."
- William Blake

"You're very quiet today, sweetheart," Tom remarked, putting his arm around Merope's shoulders. "Anything wrong?"

She shook her head and smiled. "Just admiring the scenery," she answered, gesturing out the carriage window. "The cliffs are so beautiful."

He gave her an affectionate squeeze. "Wait until you see the cottage. I'm sure you'll love it."

Merope turned her attention back to the window and tried to focus on the landscape. It was so wild and green despite the fact that it was midwinter, and the coast stretched out beneath them like a sandy ribbon. Huge waves created by the chilly February wind crashed onto the rocks, sending a fine mist into the air. The road was rough and the carriage kept jostling to and fro. Merope felt a bit sick, but she thought that it might have less to do with the turbulent journey and more to do with her lack of sleep. Since her experiment with the love potion almost a month ago, she had been plagued by nightmares from which she awoke restless and exhausted. She could never remember what she had seen, but several times she found herself turning touching Tom's warm skin and listening to him breathe as though reassuring herself that he was still there.

She turned away from the window and settled against his shoulder, feeling him rest his chin on top of her head. "I love you," she said softly.

"I love you," he returned, kissing her forehead. "You must be tired, poor thing. You can rest as soon as we get there. We'll go exploring tomorrow."

"I'm all right. Let's go today," Merope said.

Tom beamed at her. "I want to show you everything. The rocks where I used to play, the little cave I found when I was thirteen, and of course the ruins."


"Our cottage is right by the base of a cliff," her husband explained. "On top of the cliff are the ruins of a stone castle that stood there, probably hundreds - maybe thousands - of years ago. You can still see the pillars and foundations. My tutor knew a great deal about history and thought it might have been owned by a nobleman."

Merope watched his face lovingly, smiling at his animated expression. "Not a prince?"

Tom shook his head. "It's too small for a prince. Giles guessed that it was a lord who owned these lands on the coast." Suddenly he turned to look out the window. "We're here!"

The carriage stopped between the road and the shore and when Tom helped her out of the carriage, Merope gaped at the beautiful scene in front of her. The house had been situated a good distance from the road for privacy. What Tom called a "cottage" was actually a rather large, charming two-story building, white with green shutters and a little chimney. A small white fence surrounded the entire property, completing its appearance as a peaceful haven amidst the wild crashing of the sea.

Tom was watching her face. "Do you like it?" he asked anxiously.

A second carriage stopped behind theirs and Gretchen and Henry clambered out, untying packages and luggage.

Merope watched them march towards the cottage with their arms full, her eyes roaming over the pretty thatched roof and the two gabled windows over the door. "I love it," she said sincerely. She slipped an arm around his waist and he put his over her shoulder, and together they walked down the path to their home. At the front door, Tom scooped her up playfully in his arms and carried her over the threshold. Her laughter turned into awe when he set her down and she got a good look at the interior. "Oh, Tom," she breathed, her shoes echoing on the shining wood floor. "It's enormous!"

"Not really," said Tom with a grin, "but it's a spacious enough cottage. Mother used to complain that she didn't even have room to think in here." He ran his hand along the walls, which had been papered in a soft butter yellow pattern. "Father was going to have them extend the house - build another bedroom or two - but never got around to doing it."

The first floor had a living room, dining room, and library, with two small bedrooms off the kitchen for servants. Tom took her by the hand and led her up the stairs, where they found a study and three bedrooms. Every surface in the largest bedroom was covered in burgundy, making it look stern and grand like the rooms at Riddle Manor. "This was my parents' room," explained Tom, before leading her down the hall to another door. "And this was mine."

"I like yours better," Merope remarked, looking around at the simple green and gold furnishings with approval. There was a large window that covered almost an entire wall, looking west towards the sea. "Oh Tom, let's stay here!"

"Whatever you like." He squeezed her hand. "Still sure you don't want to rest up a bit?"

Merope nodded. "Show me the ruins," she suggested. "I want to see everything."

They walked out together and continued alongside the back of the house. Almost directly against the cottage's southern wall was the cliff, a sheer, stern face of rock that extended hundreds and hundreds of feet into the sky. Some shallow steps had been carved into the stone, curving upward to the peak. "You go first, Merope," Tom instructed, helping her onto the first step. "I'll be right behind you."

"I won't fall," she protested, but went first anyway. It was a long way up and she felt her legs getting tired, but finally she reached the top and gasped at its beauty. As Tom had promised, there were foundations of granite laid out on the vast peak with cracked marble columns and broken pillars scattered here and there. In several places, half of a wall remained standing and an empty window or two had been preserved. There was even a handful of statues of stern bearded men in knights' armor. "This is incredible. It's like a fairy tale," Merope whispered, shivering.

Tom nodded. "I used to play here often," he said. "This statue was my favorite, this knight with the carved sword. And I always thought that room over there was once a chapel; you can see pieces of stained glass."

"It's wonderful," said Merope, "and strange, too. Who owns this now?" The ruins gave her an odd feeling, a coldness that she couldn't quite understand. It almost felt as though she knew this place, but she had never even been in Ireland.

He shrugged. "I don't know. The nobleman's descendants, I suppose, although they've never had much interest in it. I can't blame them, what with all the stories about this place, but I would at least sell it." He knocked on a nearby pillar. "The land would fetch a good sum."

Merope stepped over a fallen piece of wall, looking around thoughtfully. "What kind of stories?"

"Old wives' tales," Tom said, waving a careless hand. "The man who built this castle was supposedly a disciple of Merlin, the Arthurian sorcerer - things like that. They're all bedtime stories." He grinned and began picking his way through the rubble, examining statues here and there.

There was a cracked fountain that caught Merope's eye and she walked over to it, admiring the moss-covered marble that must have been beautiful centuries ago. There was a carving of a man in the center, surrounded by marble roses and what looked like a curved gate, from which the water would flow. She leaned down to take a closer look and realized that the gate was actually dozens of cunningly carved, intertwining serpents. She shivered again, strongly reminded of her brother's affection for snakes. As she was straightening up, she caught sight of a movement in the corner of her eye and turned quickly towards the chapel.

"Hello?" she called out, walking over, but there was no one there. Merope frowned, feeling certain that she had seen someone. A folded piece of paper confirmed her suspicions and she picked it up carefully, examining the fresh ink. Mrs. Riddle, it said, in curving calligraphy. She opened it and caught a glimpse of the signature - Ralph Elliott.

Tom was calling her from the opposite side of the ruins. "Did you say something, Merope?"

"No, I'm fine!" She waved and smiled and when he looked away, she returned to the note.

I had the privilege of making your acquaintance in Paris at Christmas. I promised that we would have another chance to talk and I hope you will kindly meet me here tomorrow midnight. I have much that I wish to relate to you.

Merope read the letter over a second time, her eyes resting uneasily on the words "tomorrow midnight." She hardly relished the idea of climbing up again, sitting in the cold night air with someone she didn't know. Who was this Ralph Elliott? What did he have to do with her? What did he have to say that was so important that he had followed her across Europe?

"Darling, are you unwell?"

She stuffed the letter into her pocket hastily, turning to face her husband.

Tom frowned. "Are you feeling all right?"

"I guess I am tired after all, Tom," she answered, taking his arm. "I think I should go rest now."

He led her to the stairs immediately, insisting on going in front of her should she fall. "Did you like the ruins?" he inquired.

"Yes, but they make me a little uneasy," said Merope, reaching out for the comforting broad shape of his back. "There are ghosts everywhere."

* * *

The night that Marvolo Gaunt returned to Little Hangleton was a night that the villagers would never forget. They saw him walking - limping, actually - through the town, dressed in rags and looking like he had lost eight stone since September. His eyes were not bloodshot, however - as one gentleman in the Hanged Man put it, "He looked like he was ready to eat an entire cow by himself." No doubt he was hurrying home for a nice hot meal cooked by his daughter, his stomach rumbling at the thought of her food after having survived on prison rations for six months.

And then it struck the villagers: Marvolo Gaunt had no idea that his daughter wasn't there. He was rushing home to be waited upon hand and foot, completely unaware that she had run away!

In the words of old Timothy Tupman, the village carpenter: "This is going to be good!"

At half past eight on that Sunday evening in March, Gaunt could be seen struggling through the village under the scrutiny of every red-blooded citizen in town. At a quarter to nine, he had made it to the hill on which his cottage rested and was slowly making his ascension. At nine on the dot, as predicted by the respectable Mr. Tupman, there was a screech that resounded from that same hill, sending disgruntled birds from their nests and rousing a few cranky village children from their beds.

Marvolo Gaunt had found his daughter's farewell note, and he was not taking kindly to the news.

* * *

It was very difficult to leave her husband's side the following night. Merope slipped out from beneath the blankets, shivering as her feet touched the bare floorboards. She put on her warmest things, wrapping a woolen scarf around her head and neck, watching Tom all the while. He looked so peaceful. He lay on his back with one hand flung up over his head, palm facing upward, his long legs stretched carelessly across the bed. She smiled involuntarily and tucked the covers around him, listening to his soft, even breathing. The thoughts that now troubled her mind so often came once more. How many more nights will I be able to do this? How many nights before I sleep in an empty bed?

She tried to push the thoughts away and did so successfully, but the melancholy lingered like a bitter aftertaste. She tried to concentrate on getting out of the house as quietly as possible. The servants had gone to bed immediately after supper and had most likely been sleeping for hours now. The cottage was silent as Merope shut the front door behind her, pocketing the key and making her way to the rocky wall. The climb seemed to take even longer this time without Tom's reassuring presence behind her, his cheerful conversation making the effort so much easier. By the time she reached the peak, the night wind didn't seem so cold anymore and she had to loosen her head scarf.

She peered around in the dark. At night with the sound of the sea crashing against the rocks below, the ruins seemed even more ominous. Again she caught that strange sensation of familiarity, a strange spark that sent a chill up her spine. The pillars and statues cast pools of shadow everywhere and she found herself hating the place. Why hadn't anyone come to destroy it? Why had it been left standing here, abandoned for years - maybe centuries?

A man was standing by the fountain she had examined the day before, his hands joined behind his back as he looked out to sea. He turned when he heard her approaching and she looked at him uncertainly. The last time they had met, his face had been hidden behind a mask; if not for the bright hair, she wouldn't have known him at all. He had a strong sort of face - not handsome, but striking with arched eyebrows and intelligent eyes. He inclined his head politely and offered her a hand. "Mrs. Riddle," he greeted her, "thank you for joining me."

"Mr. Elliott," she murmured, taking his hand briefly.

"Please, call me Ralph." He extended a hand towards a cracked marble bench. "Shall we sit?"

Merope obliged, gazing at him with mingled exasperation and curiosity. "Please tell me who you are and how you know me, Ralph," she urged. "Why have you been following me for so long?"

"I'll come straight to the point," he said. "The reason I have been following you is because I have reason to believe - that is, I know - that you are my half-sister."

She stared at him, shocked. Of all the explanations! "What?" she whispered. "But -"

He held up a hand. "Please let me continue; I will explain everything. My parents were very young and very much in love when they married, Mrs. Riddle. They had just graduated from Hogwarts and moved into a little flat in London. I was born soon afterward." He looked out to sea, speaking very softly. "When I was almost a year old, my mother met a man who was working in a curiosity shop nearby. She wanted a certain violin that he sold, being of musical inclination. When she admired it, he told her that she could take it freely. He would charge her later on, he said. Well, Mrs. Riddle, he charged her all right." His lips tightened grimly. "Somehow he convinced her to pay for the violin by leaving her husband and child and marrying him instead."

"She wouldn't do that so easily, would she?" asked Merope, appalled.

"Not unless she were coerced against her will," Ralph responded soberly. "The man grew obsessed with her beauty and mistook his own lust for love. Mrs. Riddle, he modified her memory. He fed her a number of potions that muddled her mind and enabled her to forget all about her family. Yet another potion convinced her that she was really in love with him. You might call it..."

"... a love potion," Merope finished, gripping the bench with one hand.

The young man nodded. "Exactly. The worst kind of trickery there is, Mrs. Riddle," he said bitterly, "the sort of demon witchcraft that can convince an innocent person to leave the ones they love, to leave everything behind for someone who covets them."

Merope got up from the bench, shaking. "Go on," she said, in a voice not like her own. "I'm listening."

"She left us. She left me," he said quietly. "I grew up with no mother, just a heartbroken father. I believe he must have traced her after her disappearance; he must have gone to great lengths to win her back. He didn't know that she had been subjected to deceit, you see - the potions had been administered so gradually that bit by bit, she had become more distant. He began to truly believe that she had stopped loving him. Their marriage ended and she was free to wed her deceiver. They moved to a small town just west of Yorkshire. You know it ..." She felt his eyes on her back. "You know it as Little Hangleton."

She turned slowly to face him. "Little Hangleton," she repeated.

Ralph gave a curt nod. "They lived there for seven or eight years, and in that period of time they had two children. A boy and a girl, two innocent children who witnessed the end of their parents' marriage - an inevitable event as the man had grown tired of his wife. I think that the novelty wore off for him after a time, as did her beauty. In any case, he stopped administering the potions."

A vivid memory of the night she had stopped giving Tom the potion flashed into her mind. "What happened?" she murmured, though she almost didn't want to know. She took a seat again, not trusting herself to remain standing because her knees were shaking so badly.

"He had given her a large combination of potions without thinking of the consequences," Ralph said flatly. "Those long years of exposure to many different herbal and magical compounds took a toll on her brain. She became constantly confused: coherent one moment and lost the next. It frustrated her and everyone around her. She left this man and returned to me when I was a boy of nine or ten. By that time, my poor father had died and my aunt was raising me." He hung his head. "She took my mother in too, but the poor woman was a handful and we ended up having to place her in St. Mungo's, the wizarding hospital in London."

"What happened to the second husband? And his children?" Merope whispered, although she already knew.

Ralph's face tightened. "The husband got off without so much as a warning. My mother couldn't remember his name or where he lived or anything. She had left almost everything behind her and there was no clue as to where she had gone. Only my father had known, and he was dead. I never heard anything of that other family ... until now, of course."

"How do you know all of this?" asked Merope. "How did you find me?"

"You can imagine how angry I was when my mother returned to me in her condition. I did not know the entire story; what I learned, I overheard from my aunt and uncle when they thought I wasn't listening. I knew that a man had destroyed my parents' marriage because he wanted my mother, and that he alone was responsible for her present condition. I swore that I would get revenge, but I didn't even know the man's name. That, along with all the memories of the marriage, would have to be extracted directly from my mother's brain."

"Would that hurt her?"

"There was a very great risk of damaging her mind forever," the young man replied. "The Healers were reluctant to seek justice, choosing to maintain what little sanity she had left. It did not satisfy me. I was a very stubborn boy, Mrs. Riddle, and very determined. I studied hard at Hogwarts, sacrificing everything to graduate at the top of my class and secure a position at the Ministry of Magic in London. My dream was to work for a certain department that deals in research of the unknown." He glanced sideways at Merope. "I can't tell you much more due to the nature of my work, but suffice it to say that I have learned a great deal about the nature of human memory."

"And this was how you learned about everything?" Merope asked. "You managed to extract your mother's memories after all?"

He nodded. "She was on her deathbed when I finally made the attempt. They were just bits and pieces of her life, but they were enough to convince me of what had happened." He reached down and opened a black bag that Merope hadn't noticed before, pulling out a few small glass vials that looked empty. "These are a few that I managed to collect."

Merope took one from him and peered inside. What she had taken to be empty space was actually occupied by a single silvery thread, glistening in the dimness. "How do you -?"

Ralph lifted a wide, flat box from the bag and opened it. "You view it using this," he explained. "The Pensieve. These are extremely rare and expensive, and I was lucky enough to borrow it from a kind professor who had been my friend." He showed her the shallow basin filled with a strange, glimmering liquid. "I brought this along because I knew it would be difficult for you to believe me."

"I believe you," Merope said slowly, "but I'd like to - to hear the memory, all the same."

The man - her half-brother - smiled. "You'll see the memory with your own eyes." He opened one vial and tipped its contents into the basin, where it swirled seamlessly with the liquid. "Take my hand and don't be frightened," he instructed, leaning into the basin.

She did as he told her, watching in confused fascination as he dipped his face into the swirling liquid. Quite suddenly, she felt as though she were falling through darkness. The bench had disappeared from beneath her, and the cliff and the sea. A bright light blinded her and she closed her eyes. When she opened them again, she and Ralph were standing in the middle of a crowded street in broad daylight, surrounded by shops on either side. People bustled past them, not paying attention as they went about their daily business.

"They can't see us," Ralph told her. "This is just my mother's memory of London. There she is now!" He pointed to a woman in forest green robes, her shining dark hair swept up into a knot. "Follow me and listen closely."

The two of them trailed after the woman in green, watching as she made her way leisurely down the street. Merope noticed that almost everyone had a wand and supposed that this was an entire part of London devoted to wizards. The shops were getting dustier and more unkempt as they continued down a certain street, still following the woman who appeared to know exactly where she was going. Finally, she pushed open the door of a store on her right. Ralph and Merope followed her into a shop that sold all kinds of knick-knacks and antiques, filled with haphazard shelves and cabinets.

"Hello?" the woman called. "Is anyone here? I've come back about the violin ... I - I don't think I'll take it after all."

"What a shame," a man replied from behind a curtain in the back of the shop. "I had high hopes for you, Annabelle. I told you that it was yours, did I not?"

Annabelle hesitated. "I don't think I can afford it."

The curtain swept aside and the man stepped out, teeth gleaming. "I told you, beauty, it's yours to take," he said.

Merope felt faint as she stared at the man. He was Marvolo Gaunt, a younger and handsomer version, and he was looking at the woman with keen intent. She felt even fainter when the woman turned away, revealing her face to the unseen observers. It was a lovely face Merope hadn't seen for almost fifteen years; it was the face of her mother.

"Come, my dear. Won't you look at it again?" Marvolo was coaxing her. He lifted a dark case from the shelf behind him and laid it upon the counter. "I'll even initial the case for you, if you like," he added, taking the shining instrument from its bed of velvet.

Annabelle had turned back and was looking at the violin longingly, her expression mirroring Marvolo's. "It is lovely," she murmured.

Marvolo brought the flat of his hand onto the counter decisively. "Then it's done!" he crowed. "It's yours. Now, shall we have a celebratory drink?" He lifted a bottle of brandy from a nearby table and poured some into two dirty glasses. "Please take it, Annabelle. Go on."

"I don't drink," she said softly, taking her glass reluctantly.

"Just a sip, my beauty," Marvolo urged her gently, his burning eyes never leaving her lovely face, "just one sip..." The evil in his voice was unmistakable. The look in his eyes was so terrifyingly familiar, the lust, the obsession -

A chill ran down Merope's spine. "No!" she cried, forgetting that neither of them could hear her.

Annabelle tipped the glass and drank, and then the room went blurry. As suddenly as they had appeared on that crowded London street, Ralph and Merope had returned to the dark ruins by the sea.

"Are you all right?" Ralph asked quietly.

Merope felt sick to her stomach. She had always feared and hated her father, but she could not have imagined that this was the way he had met her mother. She could not have dreamed that this was how she came to be born, the child of a lustful man and a deceived woman. It destroyed all of the pleasant memories she had had of her parents' former happiness; it disgusted her. This isn't real, none of it! she remembered her mother screaming. It's all just a sham, a hideous farce! "My mother abandoned me too," she said finally. "She abandoned me because she had discovered what my father had done. Did she never talk about me?"

"It wasn't her fault, Mrs. Riddle," he answered. "I'm sure she loved you as much as she loved me, but her memory -"

"Did she never mention me?" persisted Merope.

Ralph sighed. "She was in no condition to remember much of anything. That memory I showed you and one other are the only intact ones I could get. Most of them are frayed, blurry; the potions muddled them up a great deal, but somehow these two were only buried deep inside her mind." He looked sideways at her. "The other memory is about you, if that makes you feel any better. It was how I learned about my mother's other family."

"Please, Ralph, let me see it," she pleaded, looking at the bag on the ground. "I want to understand. I want to know more."

He noted the damp pallor of her skin disapprovingly. "I don't know if you are well enough, Mrs. Riddle."

"Please! You've come so far and gone through so much just to speak to me," Merope begged.

"Very well. Just one more," conceded Ralph, choosing another vial from the bag. As he had done with the other, he dumped its contents into the Pensieve and watched it dissolve in the viscous liquid. He took her hand and once again bent his face towards the basin.

This time, Merope knew exactly where they ended up before Ralph had to explain. They were standing on a smooth dirt road lined with trees, the leaves of which had turned red and gold. "Little Hangleton," she said softly, recognizing the winding path.

Ralph nodded and gestured to a woman walking in front of them, carrying a heavy basket. It took Merope several seconds to recognize Annabelle; she looked so much older, so frail and tired. Her beautiful face was careworn and there were streaks of gray shooting through her dark hair. "How long has it been?" asked Merope, shocked. "Twenty years?"

Ralph gave a short, mirthless laugh. "Seven or eight. This is yet another effect of the potions she has been subjected to."

They followed the woman to the Gaunt cottage, which looked a great deal cleaner and more well-kept than Merope had ever seen it. She let herself in and was immediately accosted by two children. "Mother! Mother!" they cried, but it was not from joy - their small faces were worried.

Annabelle saw it too. "What's wrong?" she cried, before stopping short at what she saw in the living room.

Merope peered into the room and saw a familiar sight: Marvolo Gaunt lying flat on the floor, two or three empty bottles of firewhiskey beside him. He was snoring loudly, completely oblivious to the stench of a puddle of liquid beneath his face.

"Not again," Annabelle murmured. She hugged the children to her and urged them to run and play in the attic. They obeyed, scampering up the ladder, the young Merope throwing a nervous backward glance at her father. "Marvolo!" Annabelle called firmly. "Marvolo!"

The man sputtered and his eyes flickered blearily open. He looked up at his wife. "Eh? Home already? About bloody time," he mumbled drunkenly.

"I told you to give Morfin and Merope a bath," Annabelle said severely. "You promised to do so and to help tidy up the house while I was at market!"

Marvolo muttered something unintelligible, but it sounded like "Damn bloody waste of time."

His wife sat heavily down on an armchair, staring down at him helplessly. "I don't know what to do anymore, Marvolo. I can't do everything by myself," she said softly. "I clean the house, I care for the children, I cook and go to market - all on top of my hours at the seamstress. I simply can't make enough money on my own."

"And what do you expect me to do about it?" demanded Marvolo, closing his eyes again.

"I expect you," said Annabelle, her voice rising, "to keep from spending money if you cannot - or will not - earn it! I expect you, as my husband and the father of my children, to help with the household instead of drinking all day!" She stared down at him balefully. "Charles would never do this to me..."

Marvolo's head jerked up. "What did you say?" He stared back at her. "Did you say Charles?"

Annabelle looked unnerved. "I - I don't know... did I?" She leaned back in her chair tiredly. "I don't know what I'm saying anymore..."

"Too right you don't!" her husband said nastily. "Damn crazy woman. Go away and leave me be!"

Again, the room went blurry as the memory ended. Merope found herself back on the bench with Ralph, the pitch black sky above them and the crashing sea below. She buried her face in her hands, breathing deeply. "I don't remember that at all," she whispered. "But I have now seen my father drunk so many times that perhaps they all blended together -"

"It was a difficult scene for me to watch as well," Ralph responded.

Merope lifted her head and looked at him. "She mentioned Charles - her first husband - your father," she remarked. "Does that mean -?"

"The potions were wearing off slowly," the young man said grimly. "Marvolo Gaunt was in no condition to consistently feed her the potions, as you saw. He was diligent at first but as I said before, the novelty began to wear off. To put it simply, he got bored."

"And then he stopped giving them to her at all," continued Merope, "and one day she realized what she had been through."

"She collected herself enough to realize, when she discovered the potion bottles, exactly what the cost of that violin had been," agreed Ralph. "She collected herself enough to leave angrily and then forget to return. She forgot you and your brother." He carefully replaced the memories into their vials with his wand.

"Two families destroyed," Merope murmured.

"You see what I have to do, Mrs. Riddle. You see that I cannot let him live." He rose from his seat and looked down at her. "He tricked an innocent woman into a horrible marriage, hurried her husband into his grave, and took a good mother away from three children with his hellish love potion. Do you think such a person deserves to live? He thought he was stealing only love - not so, Mrs. Riddle, not so." Ralph's features hardened. "He was stealing a life."

Merope looked up at him in dazed silence.

"You have heard the Muggle saying, I presume? What comes around, goes around," he said. "When one meddles with fate, fate will come back to seek justice in the end."

"Are you asking my permission to kill him?" Merope asked. The words sounded so ludicrous to her and she laughed. She sat on the bench and laughed uncontrollably until tears ran down her cheeks. The last thing she remembered was falling onto the ground and seeing Ralph's anxious face bent over her.

"Mrs. Riddle..." he called. He sounded so far away. "Mrs. Riddle..."

And then the world went black and she knew no more.

Chapter 14: Give Up This Fight
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Author's Notes: I own the plot, original characters, banner, and all chapter images throughout the story. Everything else is owned by J.K. Rowling. Please be aware that I have blended in my own original ideas with canon information and I'll be happy to discuss anything in a review or a PM.

Thank you to everyone who voted for me in the Dobbys :) It means so much to me to be able to share this story with you!

Chapter Fourteen: Give Up This Fight
by Girldetective85

"I'll close my eyes and then I won't see the love you don't feel when you're holding me
Morning will come and I'll do what's right
Just give me til then to give up this fight."

- Bonnie Raitt

When Merope regained consciousness, she found herself back in bed at the cottage with all of the lights ablaze. Tom sat beside her holding her hand, his face drawn with anxiety. When he saw her open her eyes, he sighed with relief. "Thank God!" he cried, bending to kiss her forehead. "Can you speak to me, Merope? Say something!"

"What happened?" she murmured, trying to lift her head from the pillow. The motion made her so dizzy that she immediately lay back down again, closing her eyes to stop the room from spinning.

"I don't know," her husband replied. "I found you on the floor and I couldn't wake you up. Oh Merope..." He hugged her. "I had Henry run for the doctor."

A man Merope hadn't noticed approached the bed, smiling kindly. "Dr. Andrews at your service," he said. "How do you feel? Are you in pain?"

"No, but I feel so dizzy when I move my head," she explained.

Dr. Andrews nodded understandingly. "That's often the case after a person faints," he said reassuringly. "Tell me, Mrs. Riddle, are you in good health? Have you fainted before?"

Instead of shaking her head, she formed the word "No" with her lips.

"My wife is in perfect health, Doctor," Tom spoke up unhappily. "I'm afraid it's my fault. We traveled a long way to get here, and I foolishly made her climb the cliff with me yesterday."

"It's not your fault, Tom," Merope reassured him, squeezing his hand.

"General weariness does not often lead to fainting," the doctor mused. "Were you in any sort of distress before you lost consciousness? Any fear or emotional troubles?"

Tom looked at her doubtfully and she hesitated before answering. "I had a terrible nightmare," she lied. "I dreamt about being home again with my father. He was drunk and I thought he might hurt me." Tom's face filled with mingled worry and anger.

The doctor looked at her carefully, as though he did not quite believe her story. "And how long ago was your last cycle?"

Merope blushed. "It ended a few days ago."

He shrugged. "Well, your pulse and your temperature seem to be in order. Since you were in perfect health before this incident, I don't believe there's anything serious to worry about," he remarked. "I recommend bed rest for another day or two and a very light diet. Drink plenty of water."

"Thank you, Doctor," Tom said, standing up to shake his hand.

"Please call on me if you need anything else," Dr. Andrews answered, nodding at them. "Have a good night."

When he was gone, Merope reached for Tom's hand. He knelt beside her and gave her the smile she loved, his eyes warm and tender. She tried to keep the thought out but it pried its way into her mind: It's not real. Even as she gazed at her husband, she was thinking about her parents. She remembered Annabelle's innocence and beauty and the greedy glint in Marvolo's eyes when he watched her. If Merope could extract her own memory and place it in a Pensieve, if she could go back to the first time she gave Tom the potion, what would she see in her own eyes? The naive hope of a lovesick girl, or the evil glint of a woman who knew exactly what she was doing? Would it be a combination of both?

"A penny for your thoughts," Tom said.

"Tom," she said, clutching his hand. "Tom, if I ... ever did something to make you angry, would you forgive me?"

"Of course I would!" he answered.

"If I ever did something to hurt you -"

Tom shook his head. "You would never do anything to hurt me."

His loyalty and his trust in her brought tears to her eyes. "Tom, I'm afraid it's too late for us," she whispered. "I don't think this was ever meant to happen."

"What are you talking about, darling?" he asked anxiously, wiping her tears. "You're tired, you need rest -"

"Do you remember when you used to ride by my father's cottage?" whispered Merope. He nodded. "I used to watch you all the time. You were so handsome, so elegant. Everything about you was perfect. Even your horse was cleaner than me." She giggled a little. "I don't remember the exact moment I fell in love with you. Maybe I was always in love with you."

Tom kissed her hand. "I can't believe I didn't notice you for years."

"What was there to notice? A poor, ugly country girl with an odd family no one wanted to know." She touched his face gently. "You had a whole future in front of you and you threw it all away for me. Don't you ever wonder why? Hasn't it ever crossed your mind that I'm simply not worth it?"

"No," he said fiercely. "Never."

"Think, Tom, think," Merope urged him. "Remember that night in Genoa? Remember when you missed your home and your old life so much that you wouldn't even touch me?"

He put his arms around her as if to atone for the memory, but she could see a faint flicker of recognition in his eyes. "I thought I'd gone mad," he confessed. "That was such a strange night. I don't remember much - I was so confused."

Fresh tears sprang into her eyes. "I know, darling. I know you were."

"I remember you left the room at one point," he said, stroking her hair. "I was such a beast to you. I didn't even run after you." He sighed. "All I could think about was water."

Merope stared at him. "Water?"

"I was so thirsty," he explained. "I must have drunk two pitchers' worth of water before you came back, but it didn't do me any good." He gazed down at her. "Why are you looking at me like that?"

"I was just thinking," Merope said absentmindedly. She stared into the depths of his eyes, her heart breaking at the thought of never seeing love in them again. I could be selfish, she thought. I could keep him forever for myself. But what if she grew tired of him the way her father had grown tired of Annabelle? Impossible! The thought made her want to laugh out loud - how could she ever grow tired of Tom? But she had to seriously consider the alternative: what if she could no longer stand the guilt? Could she do that to someone? Could she use him for as long as it pleased her and then throw him away when she could bear it no longer? What Father did to Annabelle...

"I love you," Tom said softly. "Please don't be sad."

She smiled through her tears and held her arms open for him. "Could you please hold me?"

Obediently he climbed back into bed and pulled her carefully into his embrace. She lay in the protective cocoon of his arms, her face pressed into his shoulder. "You told me how much you missed your friends and family that night," she said, her words muffled. "I think you should go see them, Tom."

"Aren't you going with me?" he asked, surprised. When she didn't reply, he tightened his arms around her. "I'm not leaving you."

"You should go."

Tom bent down, trying to look at her face, but she wouldn't let him. "Do you want me to go?"

"I want you to be happy, Tom," she answered.

"I am -"

"Just think about it, darling, please." She exhaled into the fabric of his shirt. "Good night."

"Good night," he returned uncertainly.

Long after he had fallen asleep, Merope lay awake arguing with herself. Somehow she had known that this day would come; she had sensed that her happiness with Tom would not last forever. Gone were the early days of their marriage when she had innocently imagined a beautiful house, children, dinner parties, an entire life shared with him. She had been so blind then. Merope pressed the heels of her hands over her eyes, trying not to wake Tom with her weeping. He was the only person she had ever loved this way, and she had drawn him into this trap with all the caring of a ravenous spider. The image of Marvolo's greedy little eyes came back to her mind again and again. They were her eyes - but they would be her eyes no longer...

I'm not like my father, I'm not! she told herself fiercely. She was afraid of not being strong enough. She feared that she would weaken at the last minute, the way she had in Italy. But she loved Tom desperately; she would die for him. She would do this for Tom. She would summon the strength to send him back to the life he missed - the life he wanted, the life to which she did not belong.

*   *   *

Marvolo Gaunt sat alone in the dark cottage, staring into the empty fireplace. A crumpled piece of paper lay in his lap and he kept folding and refolding it absentmindedly. He had been living in the cottage by himself for almost a fortnight. There was no firewhiskey left in the cupboard and no food in the kitchen. He had sustained himself by drinking water and eating whatever unfortunate rats he could find in the attic. He didn't mind, though. He was waiting for Merope.

He felt sure that she would come soon. She would clean him up and feed him, the way she had always done since her mother left. The letter meant nothing. Perhaps it had been written by some mischievous lad down in the village; it was no secret even to Marvolo that the townspeople despised him. Maybe they thought it would be amusing to pretend that his daughter had left him to fend for himself.

I have run away to be married. Tom and I love each other and he has taken me away with him...

The name struck a chord of familiarity in Marvolo's dim mind. He suddenly remembered Morfin accusing Merope of loving a Muggle. Wasn't that Muggle named Tom, the one Morfin had hexed? The rich one that all the villagers drooled over? Marvolo scratched his head slowly in confusion. Why would a rich Muggle want his daughter? His face darkened. Why would his daughter want a rich Muggle?The little harlot! Slytherin must be turning in his grave at the very notion! A descendant of the world's greatest line of magic, mingling her blood with a disgusting Mudblood!

Marvolo sat mumbling darkly, thinking of all the ways he would punish her when she returned. He was so involved in planning Merope's torture that he didn't notice the shadow in the corner. He didn't see it creeping towards him with its arm outstretched, a thin wand pointing directly at him. If Marvolo had turned his head, he would have seen a pair of dark eyes burning with hatred; perhaps he would even have recognized them. But he observed nothing and didn't hear the mumbled incantation.

When the room flooded with green light, he was still considering the idea of locking Merope in the attic for life. He was still planning on how to punish the child who, by abandoning her family's pureblood ideals, would bring into the world the very leader to challenge the foundations of magic. But Marvolo would never see this greatest of Slytherin's descendants.

He lay in the darkness with his eyes wide open, seeing nothing in death as he had seen nothing in life.

*   *   *

Merope was determined that the last week of March would be the happiest week of her life. She had fully recovered from the fainting spell just as the days grew milder and sunnier with the coming of spring. She and Tom were inseparable. She knew that people smiled to see them always together, hand in hand, needing nor caring about anyone else. She ignored them and basked in her husband's adoration. Sometimes they sat on the beach for hours, just holding one another. She thought that Tom seemed to sense it too, this feeling that the time they had left was running out. They were clinging to each other even though Merope would be the one to drown. Tom had a lifeboat waiting for him, a raft that would take him from her world back into his, but she was determined not to think about it.

On Monday morning, the two of them took a small dinghy and sailed to the other side of the cliff. "I want to show you the cave," Tom explained, rowing the boat expertly to shore. There was a small beach at the opening of the cave, no more than a hundred feet long, and it was surrounded completely by the rock wall. "I found it when I was twelve or thirteen. Mother didn't want me rowing out here by myself and I used to do it to annoy her," he added.

Merope laughed. "You must have been a handful."

"Good children are boring," he said with a mischievous wink. "When we have our own, be prepared to discipline them as I intend to spoil them rotten."

She didn't reply to this and looked out to sea instead. How could she tell him that they would never now have children? She knew that Tom had a special place in his heart for babies. One of their elderly neighbors had two grandchildren visiting, and Tom was always ready to play with them, toss them in the air, and give them sweets. He would make a wonderful father, Merope thought, her heart aching. But he would make a wonderful father to somebody else's children. Of course a man like Tom would marry once he returned to Little Hangleton. She tried not to imagine him coming home to some beautiful woman who would look on as he played with their child in the grass.

Tom helped her out of the boat and nearly fell on the slippery sand. "Goodness!" he said. "I'd better not break an arm or you'll be rowing us back home."

Merope stared up at him and then shoved him with all her strength into the water, laughing hysterically as she ran for the safety of the cave.

She could hear him spluttering behind her and then felt his wet arms lifting her in the air. "No, no! I don't want to get wet!" she shrieked as he hoisted her across the beach and dunked her unceremoniously in the incoming waves. "Put me down!"

He was laughing uncontrollably and she pushed him again, but this time he held her to him and kissed her. "Had enough?" he asked, grinning from ear to ear. They were both shivering from the icy water and he threw a blanket from the dinghy around their shoulders.

"It's freezing!" Merope moaned, her teeth chattering.

"Serves you right for pushing me," Tom responded, chuckling as he put an arm around her. "Come on, it'll be warmer inside where there's no wind."

The mouth of the cave was enormous, yawning ahead of them into darkness. Merope touched the solid rock walls, feeling the moisture of the salty air on them. "You used to play here?" she asked, looking around at the large chunks of rock that had broken off the huge cliff face.

"I used to pretend I was a pirate," explained Tom. "I kept all of my treasure here. Mostly they were things I had stolen from my parents as revenge."

Merope looked at him. "Revenge?"

"For always ignoring me and always arguing," he said wryly. "It was a cry for attention, but neither of them ever noticed any of their jewels or watches missing. It comes with being so damn rich."

"I love the way you boast," Merope teased. In the dim light that filtered through the cave, she noticed some markings scratched into the rock. "Were you in jail?" she asked, pointing to the childishly scrawled tally.

"Actually, I had imprisoned a rival pirate and that was his handiwork," Tom replied. "He was trying to steal my treasure and I had to lock him up before he ran off to tell the other pirates." He paused and shook his head. "I was such a sad little child."

Merope giggled. "It must have been lonely for you, being an only child."

"Better no siblings at all than a sibling like yours."

"True," she conceded, thinking of Morfin's penchant for torturing snakes. She hadn't thought of him once since her marriage. No doubt he was still sitting in Azkaban.

Tom found his treasure box tucked behind a fallen rock and showed it to her. There was a ruby ring, two gold pocket-watches, a pipe, a tiny lace handkerchief, and something that looked papery. Merope picked up this last item and dropped it in surprise. "Tom, that's a piece of snakeskin," she exclaimed.

He looked at it carefully. "You're right," he said. "I didn't even know what it was when I found it in here. There must be water snakes or something."

The cave extended for hundreds of feet in front of them and fell into darkness. No matter how hard she tried, Merope couldn't see exactly how far it went. "Have you ever gone back there?"

"Never. I was afraid of the dark," he admitted. "I think this cave might go all the way inside the cliff. Who knows? You don't want to explore that far, do you?"

Merope shook her head, growing more eager to leave every minute. "I just wondered. Are you ready to eat now, Tom?"

Tom agreed readily and they returned to the beach, where they shared chicken, bread and butter, and cake, before rowing home.

The next day was mild and sunny and the two of them decided to walk down to the village. It was much smaller than Little Hangleton but very crowded, being along the road to all of the bigger towns and cities. There were shops, Dr. Andrews's office, a little post office, and a bakery.

"Want to try any of these shops?" Tom suggested.

"All right," she said agreeably, leading him into one that sold ladies' hats. The woman behind the counter was busy with a customer and she gave them a brief smile.

Merope wasn't particularly interested in buying anything but to please Tom, she chose a wide-brimmed straw hat to wear on the beach. She was playing with the flowered ribbon on it when she heard an exclamation of surprise. "Tom Riddle? Is that you?"

They both looked up to see the other customer staring at them. The familiar pale, pretty face and bright hair made Merope catch her breath until she realized that it was the younger sister - not the woman herself.

"Rose Ingram!" Tom said cordially, not seeming uncomfortable in the least. "How are you? Fancy meeting you here, of all places!"

"I didn't know that you had gone to Ireland," Rose said, her eyes darting curiously to Merope and back.

"Yes, my wife and I live here now," replied Tom, putting an arm around Merope. "You remember Rose Ingram, don't you, darling?"

Merope murmured something appropriate and Rose smiled faintly back. "Congratulations on your marriage," she said, still looking curious. Her eyes darted downward very subtly, a suggestion that was not missed by Merope - she guessed that her sudden elopement with Tom had prompted speculation about her being pregnant. "I'll be living in Ireland as well," Rose said, touching a ring on her hand self-consciously. "My fiance has a house in Kilburn."

"Congratulations," Tom said. "Do I know your fiance?"

"I doubt it. I met him while on holiday with my aunt and uncle," Rose explained. There was an awkward silence as both parties struggled for things to talk about. "Have you been back to Little Hangleton?"

Tom shook his head. "Not since before our honeymoon, no."

"Neither have I," she said. "But I hope your family is well. My sister is married now -" She broke off uncomfortably, as though afraid that the topic would be too painful.

"That's wonderful," Tom answered smoothly. "To John Havering, I presume."

Rose nodded. "Well, it was lovely to see you." She turned to leave and then paused at the door. "By the way," she added, addressing Merope, "I saw your friend at Christmas. We were on the boat to Ireland together."

"My friend?" Merope repeated, puzzled.

"Bethe Lawney. She was going to visit a cousin in Wicklow."

Merope's heart leapt in her chest. Could Bethe be here in Ireland? "I haven't spoken to her since November," she exclaimed. "How was she? Did she look well?"

Rose nodded. "She seemed well for the most part. A little out of spirits, perhaps, but not everyone is fit for sea travel." She gave them a little wave and left the shop, her heels clicking on the stones outside.

"Shall we pay for the hat and get some lunch, dear?" Tom asked, leading the way to the counter.

"Tom, how far is Wicklow from here?"

He shrugged. "About an hour or two by train, I think. If you want to visit your friend, I wouldn't mind," he added, smiling at her.

"I know you don't like her, Tom -" began Merope.

He finished paying and handed her the hat. "If you really want to see her, you can go."

Merope shook her head and hugged him. "I don't want to be away from you for so long," she murmured.

"It would just be one day!" He laughed. "I promise I'll be able to live without you for just one day ... but no more than that."

Will you still say that when you find out what I have done? She shook her head again sadly. "This is our week and I want to spend every waking moment with you."

He tilted her chin and looked into her eyes. "Your wish is my command. But sometimes I don't know if I make you happy, Merope. You look so sad -"

Oblivious to the woman behind the counter, who was watching them with an interested smile, Merope reached up and kissed her husband. "You make me the happiest woman on earth," she said sincerely. "If I had a choice, I would do it all over again for you." She meant it with all her heart. Those long years of suffering with her father, those lonely days of not knowing whether she would ever escape; even the pain of losing Bethe's friendship and the heartache of realizing how much she needed the love potion ... she would gladly do it all again for these few precious days with Tom.

But even as they walked back to the home they shared, their arms around one another, Merope knew that it could end only one way.

It was just a dream. Like all dreamers, she would have to wake up eventually.

*   *   *

On Saturday, after a heavenly week of rowing and walking and exploring with her husband, Merope gave him the love potion for the last time. The drop seemed to linger before floating into the glass of water like a reluctant ray of sunshine. My last ray of sunshine, she thought. She had lain awake all night, tossing and turning, still fighting with herself even after all this time. You've already stolen four months with him, she had told herself before thinking, But one more couldn't hurt. Just one more month ... But when would it end? If she didn't have the strength now, why would things be different after another stolen month? And another, and another...

She knew she couldn't go on living like this. If only I had never experimented, she thought regretfully, remembering that terrible night in Italy. I could be happy right now, thinking that Tom truly loved me. But she would have discovered the truth sooner or later. She would have run into Ralph, her half-brother, the son who was forgotten by their mother. Or she would have run out of potion eventually, however long it took. And maybe somewhere deep inside, Merope had always known that Tom did not love her; maybe she had kept Bethe's warning in her heart all this time. Why would she have fears and nightmares if she were certain that her husband cared for her?

"Thank you, my love," Tom said when he took the glass from her. He drank it down thirstily, beaming up at her when he was finished. "What would you like to do today?"

"Could we just sit on the beach and talk?" she suggested, avoiding his eyes.

"What do you want to talk about?" asked Tom, getting up from his chair. "It sounds serious."

"It is," she said honestly, finally looking at him.

He looked worried, but nodded. "It looks like rain, darling. We should bring an umbrella."

After breakfast they walked out together, making their way lesiurely to the beach. Tom seemed cheerful despite the gloomy weather, whistling a tune as he gazed up at the ominous dark clouds gathering above the sea. He swung the umbrella to and fro in one hand and held her hand with the other, smiling at her every now and then. She clung to him, her emotions in a complete tangle. She told herself to be happy, to enjoy this one last perfect day with her beloved, but she couldn't help dreading what would come tomorrow. I've been through it before, she reassured herself, trying not to think of Tom's anger - for angry he would be. She pictured her father's face again and it gave her an incredible strength, a feeling of power and pride that she would do what he could not. She loved Tom and she would let him go, because he deserved it.

They found a large, flat rock right by the water's edge and climbed onto it. Merope sat with her legs folded and Tom lay down, his head in her lap. She stroked his soft dark hair and bent to kiss his forehead. "I'll always remember you just as you are now," she said softly.

"Even when I'm old and gray?" he teased, his eyes crinkling up at her.

"Even then," she answered, though she knew that it would be some other woman watching him grow old and gray. Some other woman would sit in the rocking chair across from his, knitting jumpers for their grandchildren, laughing with him in the firelight. "Especially then."

Tom reached up and touched her face. "You're beautiful."

She nearly laughed out loud, a bitter pang settling into her heart. Only a man who had taken a love potion would consider her beautiful. She knew what her reflection looked like in the mirror - she was plain and dark and mousy. "Have you given any more thought to going home? Will you go and visit your family?"

"I told you, I don't want to leave you here by yourself," Tom answered. "I won't go if you're not coming with me."

"And I told you," she said gently, "there's nothing and no one there for me. I'll be much happier here. I think I've been happier here these few weeks with you than I've ever been, anywhere else in the world."

"And so have I," said Tom, squeezing her hand.

"I want you to know that you have made me so, so happy," Merope whispered. "Thank you for giving me something to look back on." She put her hand on his cheek and looked into his eyes. "You'll hate me eventually, Tom, but I will always be in love with you."

Tom shook his head. "You've been saying things like this the whole week, sweetheart. Why on earth would I hate you?"

"I'm tired of lying to you, I'm tired of secrets," she said wearily. "There are things about me that you should know, and even if you don't understand them today, I know you'll despise me for them tomorrow." He started to protest and she placed her fingers over his lips. "Listen to me, Tom. I asked you the other night whether you ever wondered about how we fell in love. Didn't you ever find it strange that you dropped everything - your friends and your family and your home - for me? A girl you hadn't even noticed before?"

"No, I -"

"Tom, the people in the village used to think my family strange. And we are strange. No one in their right minds would seek an acquaintance with us -" Here she broke off and thought painfully of Bethe, kind Bethe who had opened her heart when no one else would. "You rode past my cottage for years without a second thought for the girl who lived inside. Why would one summer change this?"

Tom sighed. "A lot can happen in one summer," he said patiently. "And all that nonsense about the villagers ... Merope, you know they live to gossip and make up stories. It gives them something to do in their utterly boring lives -"

"But Tom, they were right about us!" She looked down at him, begging him to understand. "They were right about me!"

He gazed up at her. "So what are you telling me? That you put some kind of spell on me to make me fall in love with you?"

Merope remained silent.

Tom propped himself up on one elbow and laughed. "That's crazy, Merope! It's just a children's bedtime story. Witches don't exist." He stared directly into her eyes. "Why are you telling me this? Are you letting me go, Merope? Is this what you're doing, ending our marriage? I thought you were happy -"

"I am happy!" she cried, frustrated. "But you're not! Remember what happened that night in Italy -"

"Stop reminding me about that night, Merope!" Tom exclaimed, exasperated. "It's over, all right? It happened once and it won't happen again -"

"It will happen again," she said. "I'm using a love potion on you -" He gave a snort of disbelief but she ignored him. "I'm using a love potion on you and this morning, I gave it to you for the last time. I can't do this anymore, Tom. I've ruined your life. I've tricked you into marrying me and it's not fair, it's not right..."

Tom got up from the rock and jumped onto the sand, stuffing his hands into his pockets.

"Where are you going?" Merope cried.

"Back to the cottage," he said shortly. "When you're ready to talk sensibly, Merope, come and find me."

She watched him walk away, his shoulders squared and his back rigid. She didn't know how long she sat on the rock by herself, numb inside and out. The seagulls were screaming over the waves, each piercing cry sharpening the pain in her head and her heart. She wasn't afraid that Tom would not believe her; she knew that he would eventually.

The rain began to fall in a chilly light mist, mingling with the warm tears on her face. She watched the waves for hours, wondering how easy it would be to immerse herself in them, to forget and be forgotten by the world. But she refused to do that to Tom, not while he was still under the delusion that he loved her. She would not hurt him any more than absolutely necessary.

Slowly, she climbed off the rock and headed back home. Gretchen was setting the table for dinner and curtsied when she saw her mistress, averting her gaze tactfully at the sight of Merope's red eyes. Merope went slowly up the stairs to her room. Tom was stretched out on the bed in the dark, his arms folded behind his head, staring up at the ceiling. He turned his head to look at her when she came into the room.

"Hello," she whispered.

"Hello," he returned.

She rushed over to him and threw herself into his arms, crying. "Tom, I'm so sorry - I ..."

"Shhh," he said, wiping her tears. "Don't cry, love." She returned his kiss hungrily, clinging to him with every ounce of strength left in her body. He pulled her beneath him, kissing her eyelids and her neck. Somehow she managed to peel the soaking dress from her skin, shivering slightly. He lifted her gently and pulled the covers over them both, still kissing her. She tightened her arms around his neck, not wanting to be apart from him for one second. She lost herself in his embrace, forgetting everything as he ran his hands down her skin, his lips at her ear forming her name. She buried her fingers in his hair and pressed her face against his shoulder.

"I love you," he said.

She kept her eyes closed and her face hidden. "I love you," she said.

Maybe she could fool herself into believing that it was true, just one last time.

Chapter 15: The Leave Taking
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Author's Notes: I own the plot, original characters, banner, and all chapter images throughout the story. Everything else is owned by J.K. Rowling. Please be aware that I have blended in my own original ideas with canon information and I'll be happy to discuss anything in a review or a PM.

Chapter Fifteen: The Leave Taking
by Girldetective85

"Love takes off masks that we fear we cannot live without
and know we cannot live within."

- James Arthur Baldwin

Tom woke up a few mornings later with a painfully dry throat. He coughed and sat up in bed, trying to swallow with difficulty. He reached for the glass of water on his nightstand and drank all of it in one gulp, but the thirst seemed to get even worse. I might as well have drunk sand, he thought crankily, swinging his legs over the side of the bed. He gave a few more raspy, painful coughs.


He turned around and saw Merope watching him. "What?"

"Are you all right?" she asked.

"Yes, if by 'all right' you mean my bloody throat's on fire," he replied testily, rising to his feet. He thought she could look more concerned or offer to get him more water, but instead she lay motionlessly in bed with her strange eyes on him. Why did he ever think they were beautiful? "I'm going to get some more water."

Merope shook her head slowly. "It won't do any good."

"What do you mean?" he demanded. "Of course it will. Even a child knows that when it's thirsty, it needs to drink water."

"Don't you remember what happened in Genoa?" she said tentatively.

He glared at her. Would she never stop reminding him about that night? But when he thought about it, he realized that was the night this same thirst had come upon him, a thirst that a pitcher of water couldn't quench. And then all of a sudden, it had disappeared. Tom racked his brains for an answer, but he came up with nothing. "I think I'll call Dr. Andrews for some cough syrup," he said.

"That won't do any good, either."

"Bloody hell, woman, will you tell me what will do me good?" he roared. He hadn't intended to raise his voice but just the sight of her infuriated him. Something was wrong here, very wrong. The way she flinched made him even angrier.

"You'll just have to live with it for a little while," she said gently, sitting up in bed. She wrapped her arms around her own thin shoulders and looked at him with those strange, sad eyes. "You're craving the love potion. I expect this is an after-effect..."

Tom sighed loudly. "Not this again! Love potions don't exist, Merope!"

"I told you, Tom, I've been using one on you," Merope answered with perfect calm, though she was fidgeting with the edge of the blanket. "It's how I got you to fall in love with me. It's why you married me."

He walked back over to the bed and sat down, looking straight into her eyes. "You are insane," he said slowly.

"Don't you remember what happened with Cecilia? Don't you recall how quickly you ended things with her so you could be with me?" she persisted.

Something tugged at the edges of his memory. Yes, why had he grown tired of Cecilia so quickly? They had been engaged to wed, hadn't they? Tom frowned, struggling to remember. Why in blazes was his mind so slow? He felt like he had been in a dusty closet for months and had just come out into the daylight, lost and disoriented. "She was the one who ended the engagement," he said aloud, surprising himself. "I merely agreed to it."

Merope nodded. "And you proposed to me immediately and took me to meet your parents."

His parents ... Tom closed his eyes, trying to organize his thoughts. It was like trying to fit together the pieces of a particularly stubborn puzzle. He remembered his mother shouting and crying ... yes, she had been upset. She had been shouting at Merope - something about stealing her son away. Someone had thrown a teacup. I threw the teacup, Tom recalled suddenly, feeling his face grow warm with shame. "They hated you so much," he murmured.

"They didn't approve of me," she agreed quietly. "They didn't approve of our marrying so quickly."

"And then we left the house," continued Tom, thinking hard. "I left the house. I left everything behind ... for you." He opened his eyes and stared at his wife, feeling the oddest sensation of deja vu. It was worse than looking at a stranger; it was like looking at an acquaintance whose name he couldn't quite remember, frustrating and uncomfortable. One by one, the memories of their time at the cottage came back into his mind. They had read books and there had been music. "We were friends," he exclaimed suddenly. "I liked talking to you, didn't I? You made me dinner and I played the violin."

A half-hearted smile flitted across Merope's face. "That's right."

"But I never even thought of marrying you," he said. "I enjoyed your company. And I liked the hot water you gave me - it smelled like grass and springtime and lemons." His thirst, which he had temporarily forgotten, came back with a vengeance as he thought of that citrus-infused fragrance, the steam curling gently in the air.

Merope got out of bed and walked over to the dresser. From the bottom drawer she removed a porcelain box and carried it over to him. Tom recognized it as one of the gifts he had given her on their honeymoon and looked at her questioningly, but she only opened it and took out a shining glass phial. Slowly she opened it and held it underneath his nostrils. The tantalizing fragrance was one that Tom recognized immediately. He reached for it eagerly but she snatched it away. "Merope, I'm dying of thirst!" he complained.

"You won't die," she responded. "But you can't drink this anymore, Tom."

He was barely listening to her because with just one whiff of the amber-colored liquid, all of his confusion returned. He felt like he loved Merope, he felt like reaching for her and holding her in his arms. And then within a matter of seconds, the feeling subsided and he was just a thirsty, irritable man once again. What just happened? "Let me smell it again," he said urgently. 

His wife looked at him doubtfully, cradling the phial against her.

"I won't take it, I just want to smell it once more. I want to know -"

Reluctantly Merope opened the phial again and held it out to Tom for just a fraction of an instant. Immediately he felt that longing, so strong this time that he actually reached out for her hand. The minute she removed the phial, the longing vanished and he dropped her hand in shock. "My god," he said. "Oh my god."

She looked at him wearily. "Tom -"

"It really is true, isn't it?" he exclaimed, getting up and backing away from her. "What kind of hellish creation is that? Is it some sort of drug, Merope?" He stared at the amber liquid in her hands, his thirst for it beginning to fade. "Have you been feeding it to me all this time?"

"Yes," she said desperately, "I tried to tell you -"

He gaped at her in fear. "This is how you made me marry you, you said," he whispered. "This is how you made me fall in love with you, by drugging me."

Merope nodded silently, tears beginning to form in her eyes.

Tom just stared, his eyes moving all over her face, trying to find some ounce of logic in all this. He wanted so badly to understand. "Why?" he asked finally.

"Because I loved you so much," she said pleadingly, "because I wanted you for myself." She continued on and on, explaining her motives, but he couldn't comprehend a word of it.

For the life of him, he couldn't remember when she had first given him the drink, but he supposed it had been easy. They had been friends, after all, and she had made him so many meals. It would have been the work of an instant to give him something hot to drink with dinner. They had been friends... "But how could you do this to me?" he asked, struggling to maintain his temper. Becoming violent with her would not give him the answers he sought. "If you cared for me as much as you say, how could you knowingly drug me? Manipulate me?"

She didn't seem to have an answer to that. "I'm sorry, Tom," she whispered, her face wet with tears.

"You tricked me," Tom exclaimed, his voice rising despite his resolution to remain calm. "Merope, you tricked me and lied to me!"

"I'm so sorry, Tom," she repeated, lifting one arm as though to touch him and then deciding against it.

Tom shook his head wildly. "Sorry?" he echoed. "Sorry doesn't erase the fact that you stole almost four months of my life away! You destroyed my relationship with my parents, with Cecilia - my god, did you ever think about them, Merope? You tricked me into leaving them behind, everything and everyone I loved!"

"I know, I know!" she sobbed. "Don't you think I know that? Don't you think that it's been torturing me?"

"I don't know what to think anymore, Merope!" Tom shouted back, throwing caution to the winds. "I don't even know you! What kind of a person would do this to their friend?"

She sank to the ground, shaking from head to toe with sobs.

The slightest note of pity crept into his heart but he crushed it immediately. He looked at the woman - his wife - with a cold fury, but could find no more words for her. Deliberately he turned on the spot and threw the bedroom door open.

"Tom!" she cried. "Where are you going?"

He ignored her and strode purposefully out into the hallway, ignoring the red faces of Gretchen and another maid who had heard the row. Walking downstairs, he threw open the door and stepped out into the rain. He hardly knew where he was going himself, but he could not remain in that house for another second.

*   *   *

He didn't return until very late that night. Merope had lain in bed all day, too weak to think of getting up or sending the maid for something to eat. She kept telling herself that she had done the right thing, that even though she had done Tom a great wrong, this would surely atone for it ... but all of her reassurance failed when she saw his stony face. He came into their bedroom and began pulling his belongings from the closet, stripping the dresser and the night table of his possessions. He did not answer her when she called his name, but continued gathering his things mechanically. 

"I know that you think I'm evil," she said desperately to his rigid back, trying not to cry again. Crying would only make things worse. "I know that I did a terrible thing, but Tom, I truly did it because I loved you."

He didn't answer, continuing to throw clothing into a suitcase without looking at her.

"I dreamed of escaping with you," Merope persisted, trembling. "I wanted you to save me from my life - I was stupid, Tom, I was childish not to think of the consequences..."

Only when he had finished filling two suitcases did Tom straighten and address her. He spoke in a flat voice and faced the opposite wall as he did so. "This marriage never happened. I'm filing for an annulment," he stated. He ignored her gasp and kept speaking. "I've left you a small sum of money to be used at your discretion. If you need more, you may write to my attorney." He took a slip of paper from his pocket and laid it on a chair, still not looking at her. "This cottage will also be yours. My family has no use for it anymore."

Merope stared at his stern profile. There was no trace of the man who had held her, kissed her, and showered her with gifts. That man had been a fantasy; this, then, was the real Tom Riddle, once her friend and lover and now almost an enemy. She had seen in him what she had wanted to see, but all this time he had never really been hers. He had never been meant for her and now he would walk away and forget her. "Tom -" she began, but the words dried in her throat and she fell silent. Nothing she said would undo the past or change the future. Nothing she did would help anymore.

Tom picked up his suitcases and walked out the door. His footsteps echoed on the stairs slowly, firmly. She heard him speaking to Henry, and then the front door opened with a creak. Voices murmured and then the door closed, leaving nothing but silence.

With all of her strength, Merope pushed herself out of bed and hurried into the hallway. "Tom!" she cried. She rushed down the stairs, but there was no one there; even the servants had gone. She threw open the front door and stared out into the darkness. It was still raining and the air was thick with fog, but she could just glimpse the outline of a carriage beginning to pull out of the gates. Despite her thin nightdress and her bare feet, Merope found herself running after it. "Tom! Wait!" She stumbled and fell, scraping her knee on the ground. "Tom!"

But the carriage was pulling away silently. She thought she saw a pale face at one of the windows, but it was too dark to make out the features. She lay on the wet ground, sobbing desperately. The rain fell steadily, pattering onto the ground to the rhythm of her aching heart. She could hear nothing else but the storm and the crashing of the sea. She was alone, utterly alone.

Tom had gone from her forever.

*   *   *

On a mild spring morning in April, Mrs. Amelia Johnson hurried to the Little Hangleton bakery. The gaggle of gaping women who stood outside looked up expectantly when she arrived.

"Is it true, Amelia?" asked one of them. "Has the Squire's son really returned at last?"

"True as you see me standing before you," she assured them, and a collective gasp sounded through the air. "He returned last night with two servants and a pair of suitcases. No wife, interestingly enough..."

This bit of news had not been circulated and everyone began chattering at once.

"That Gaunt girl? I wonder where she could be -"

"Do you think she died in childbirth?"

"No, stupid, they'd only been married four months -"

Mrs. Johnson waved her arms for silence. "My sources tell me," she began importantly, "that he returned without a wedding ring."

Several pairs of eyebrows raised.

"Maybe he divorced her!" someone exclaimed gleefully.

"No wife, no wedding ring," remarked a coy girl named Susan. "I s'pose this means Tom Riddle is back on the market?"

"I don't think a farmer's daughter like you is much to his taste, Sue ..."

"Well he married a peasant girl, didn't he?!"

"True, and it never hurts to look at him. My, isn't he nice to look at -"

As the week went on, the excitement grew even more. Tom Riddle was indeed home and could be seen riding about the town as he had done in the old days. He was handsomer than ever and many a village girl went into a frenzy at the sight of him trotting by. He seemed a little different, though. The old Tom Riddle had swaggered through town with his head held high, but this one rode with his eyes on his saddle. Tongues began to wag about the exact circumstances of his whirlwind marriage.

The fever of curiosity had not escaped even the queen of Little Hangleton. Mary Riddle had welcomed her son back with open arms. "Tom, I've missed you so!" she had sobbed, clinging to him. "Why didn't you write me? Not even a note in four whole months. Of course I'll never reproach you, but look how thin I've become! And your father was so upset ... though it didn't seem to affect his appetite."

Tom had hugged her back distractedly. "Sorry, Mother, I won't leave again," was all he had to say.

Overjoyed as Mrs. Riddle was at her beloved child's return, the village gossip disturbed her. She had always known that her family was the subject of many a bored villager's conversation, but to hear her boy's name bandied around in conjunction with that disgusting tart - oh, what was her name again? Something ungodly ... Malopey? - was enough to break her heart.

Upon informing Tom of this, she only received a shrug. "Don't you care, son?" she asked him, standing over his chair in the library. "Isn't it horrible to hear these outlandish stories about your personal life?"

"I don't acknowledge them, Mother," he said tiredly. "They'll die down sometime."

"What we need is a good solid story to shut them up," Mrs. Riddle said, ignoring him. "What did happen, Tom? Between you and Remopey?"

Her son sighed and lowered the book to his knees, knowing that she would not leave until he answered. "The marriage took its course and then it ended. She wasn't the person I thought she was. Satisfied?"

"Very," Mrs. Riddle responded, kissing his forehead. "Enjoy your book. I'll call you for dinner in an hour."

She strode out of the room purposefully, her heels clicking on the wood floor. So, she thought vindictively, that must mean the strumpet pretended she was pregnant so he would marry her. The nerve! She went down into the kitchen and faced the cook and the four maids, who curtsied. "The hussy who married my son pretended she was pregnant so he would wed her," she announced. "Be sure to make his roast dinner just the way he likes it. Bake a honey cake to cheer him up. I want everything to be perfect."

It took three hours for the news to spread to every corner of Little Hangleton, but by the end of the day everyone was perfectly satisfied. It all made perfect sense and it even explained why he had abandoned his family for the tramp's daughter. Underneath that snobbish exterior, Tom Riddle was a man of honor! 

But even as everyone chatted happily about this development and continued on with their daily lives, that same man of honor sat alone in the library of Riddle Manor with his head in his hands, a prisoner of his own thoughts.

*   *   *

Merope had never been so ill in her entire life. She supposed that lying all night in the rain had not done wonders for her health. Somehow she had managed to drag herself back into the house. For days - possibly weeks, she had no idea - she lay in bed alternately burning with fever and shivering from chills. She dreamed endlessly of Tom. Sometimes they were good dreams in which he returned, and sometimes they were nightmares in which she relived that horrible night over and over. She was too weak to leave the bed and sometimes wondered if she would starve to death. Merope wasn't afraid to die. She rather welcomed the idea of losing herself to oblivion, unable to remember and think back on what she had lost. Life seemed bleak and meaningless without Tom and she could envision time stretching out forever, lonely years of wondering whether somewhere out there, he had forgotten her...

One night when the fever was at its worst, she felt a strange urge to take the locket out of her porcelain box. With all the strength she had left, Merope fell back into bed and clutched it to her chest, falling into a dreamless slumber.

When she woke up, she thought she saw a man sitting on the edge of her bed. He didn't look like anyone she had ever known. He was tall and thin and pale, with green eyes that reminded her of a cat's. He didn't speak to her but simply sat there, staring down at her with his calm, steady gaze. His face was expressionless, appraising. He reached out and touched her forehead, but she couldn't feel his hand. In fact she couldn't even feel his weight on the bed, and the more she looked at him the more she realized that he was filmy and silvery ... like a ghost. The moment she blinked, he vanished into thin air.

He was back again the following night. In her muddled, confused state, Merope thought he held a hot washcloth in his hand and was applying it to her forehead. She felt the soothing warmth on her face and fell asleep. When she awoke, there was a mug of scalding hot soup on the night table beside her and she found that she was hungry. Slowly she sat up and sipped the clear broth, feeling it warm her belly, before lapsing into sleep once more.

This went on for several nights. The strange man appeared regularly and never spoke to her, but always brought something that would soothe her - washcloths, light food, even a strong-smelling syrup that must have been medicine. So it was that on a sunny morning in mid-April, Merope felt well enough to sit up in bed. The man was, of course, nowhere to be found.

"Hello?" she called out, half expecting a response. I couldn't have imagined him... She turned to look at the nightstand, searching for the washcloths and the food he had brought her, but there was nothing. Merope swung her feet to the floorboards and tried standing up.

She was so hungry, so desperately hungry. With the greatest difficulty, she descended the stairs and wandered into the kitchen. Food and dishes were scattered all over the counters as though the servants had left in a hurry. Which they had, she reminded herself, remembering Tom's hasty departure. Thinking of him hurt too much and she quickly focused on her search for food. There was half a loaf of bread in the cupboard and she ate it ravenously, ignoring the stale taste. How long it had been there, she neither knew nor cared.

Her hunger abated, Merope sat alone in the empty silence. "What am I going to do?" she said aloud, hearing the shaky desperation in her own voice. Slowly, she got up from the chair and went into the corridor. There was a white envelope on the table by the door and she opened it, gasping when she saw how much money was inside. It would be more than enough to last her several months.

"If he left me money," she murmured, "he must care about me. He must be coming back!" She kissed the envelope, tears forming in her eyes as a ridiculous hope blossomed in her heart. Tom could not completely hate her. Hadn't he even instructed her to write him for more? She hurried to her bedroom and examined the note he had left on the chair. His familiar handwriting jumped out at her, spelling the name and address of his attorney in Great Hangleton. Why hadn't he given her his own address? Didn't he want to hear from her?

Merope sank onto the chair. Of course he didn't want to hear from her. He was only providing for her because he pitied her. His angry voice echoed in her mind. You tricked me! You tricked me and lied to me! Merope shrank onto the floor, pressing both hands over her ears as though he were in the room screaming at her. What kind of person would do this to their friend? She felt so ill and her stomach hurt so much. Hastily Merope hurried into the bathroom and bent over the sink, retching. Her face in the mirror was pale and damp with perspiration. She splashed cold water on her forehead and collapsed onto the bed.

"Help me," she moaned. "Help me, please help..." She hardly knew for whom she called. Faces swam before her eyes and then a familiar voice murmured to her, soft and comforting.

Poor darling child, don't you know that you're not alone? You are never alone...

Wearily she turned her head to one side. The locket lay on the bed beside her, half-covered by the blankets. She had almost forgotten that she had cradled it to her in her fever. "You," she whispered, clasping it in her hand. There was something familiar about the way the emerald gleamed at her, like a cunning feline eye. It reminded her of the strange man who had taken care of her.

I'm here to help you, my little girl. Let me help you, let me be your friend.

"I want Tom," she whispered.

Put him from your mind, Merope. Concern yourself with him no longer.

"I need him, please -"

You need no one, daughter of Slytherin. Have courage...

"I have none," she answered weakly, squeezing the tears from her eyes. "I wish to die, please let me die in peace. I deserve death for what I have done..."

The locket warmed reprovingly. You must live, Merope, if not for yourself then for him...

Merope shook her head. "He doesn't care whether I should live or die," she answered, though she knew that this was partly untrue. She thought of the envelope of money sitting on the hallway table, of the lawyer's address.

I spoke not of your precious Tom, the locket said witheringly.

She looked down at it, confused.

You must live for him, it continued, the emerald shining as brightly as ever, he who has yet to come into the world. The one to whom you will give life...

Merope's eyes widened. "What do you mean?" she breathed, sitting up in bed. "Of whom do you speak?"

Of the one who will carry the blood of Salazar Slytherin, the locket whispered, of the dark prince to come. Your son...

"My son," she echoed with wonder, though the words did not taste pleasant on her lips. She glanced down at her belly, trying to picture it round and swollen with the growing life within. "My son..."

* * *

In late April, Bethe Lawney returned to Little Hangleton. She came to collect her remaining belongings from the care of neighbors, books and boxes and light furniture that hadn't yet been taken to the house in Silvermist Woods. She came with two carriages in tow to store her possessions and smiled at the awed villagers who had known her as a simple, frugal young woman.

"I'm so glad you've come back to visit," Lucy Shepherd remarked, hugging Bethe. "You look wonderful."

"Not too high and mighty for us yet," observed Amelia Johnson, settling for a brisk handshake. "How is your grandmother's house?"

"Much too large for one woman," Bethe replied, laughing. "I've been thinking of turning it into a school - I'd love to teach reading." This reminded her of another pressing reason she had returned to Little Hangleton. "Tell me, have you any news of the Gaunt family?"

Mrs. Johnson wrinkled her nose. "Still interested in that barmy lot, I see," she muttered. "I never could see how you maintained your friendship with that girl, Bethe -"

"You heard of her elopement, of course?" Mrs. Shepherd interrupted. "No doubt everyone in the next five counties has heard of it. Master Tom returned at the beginning of April..."

"They're here?" Bethe asked excitedly.

The two women looked at each other. "He came back alone, without his wife and without a wedding ring," Mrs. Shepherd said gently. "He's been living at Riddle Manor with his parents ever since."

"But where's Merope? What has happened to her?" demanded Bethe.
Damn my visions, she thought, they come when I least want them and go missing when I need them most!

Mrs. Johnson shrugged. "No one knows, Bethe. The story is that she tricked him into marrying her," she explained. "Apparently she made him believe that she was pregnant."

"When he discovered that she was lying, he left her," added Mrs. Shepherd, shaking her head. "Took him four whole months. Men, I tell you, as clueless as babies..."

Bethe didn't answer. Her mind was racing, putting two and two together. So Tom had left Merope! The pregnancy rumor was bollocks, of course, but his claim that Merope had tricked him into marriage was truth. Somehow he had found out about the love potion. How?

"The son is still in jail," Mrs. Johnson was saying. "How long has it been, Lucy? Seven or eight months? Perhaps they've sent him to Siberia."

"Darling, no one sends prisoners to Siberia anymore," her friend answered gently.

"And the father is dead," said Mrs. Johnson bluntly, ignoring her.

Bethe looked up abruptly. "Dead?" she repeated. "How? I thought he was in jail..."

"They released him in March and he returned here. He was positively furious when his daughter wasn't home to greet him," Mrs. Shepherd remarked. "About three weeks ago, a man comes running into the village raising hell that Gaunt had died before he paid his debts. He found the old tramp lying dead in his cottage."

Mrs. Johnson nodded in agreement. "They say he was in perfect condition with nary a scratch on him. The doctor thinks he died of starvation."

"My God," Bethe murmured, holding a hand to her heart. "I wonder if Merope knows."

"If she does, she doesn't care enough to come back," said Mrs. Johnson. "Her father's buried behind the church there."

"I should go and pay my respects," said Bethe thoughtfully, looking the direction of the little stone church. "She was after all my friend." Hastily she bid goodbye to the two ladies, promising them another visit, and walked towards the church. Thoughts raced wildly in her mind every step of the way. How strange that Merope had seemingly disappeared. Could Tom Riddle have killed her in his fury?

She reached the graveyard before she knew it, still thinking hard, and bumped into another person at the gate. "I'm sorry," she murmured, before looking up into the handsome face of Tom Riddle himself.

"You," he said in surprise, recognizing her.

"Yes, me," Bethe snapped, feeling none too pleasant towards him. Trickery or not, he had abandoned or harmed her dear friend in some way. "And you are the very person I wanted to speak to. Sit down." She expected him to put up a fight, but instead he bent his head sadly and took a seat on the bench. This, coupled with his wrinkled clothing and the dark circles under his eyes, made her stare in wonder. She almost pitied him, but quickly hardened her resolve. "Tell me, is my friend Merope still alive or have you done away with her?" she demanded.

Tom's head shot up. "What kind of man do you think I am?" he asked angrily.

Bethe crossed her arms over her chest. "So she's alive and well?"

"Yes," he said. "I give you my word."

"Is it true what they've been saying in the village? That she tricked you into marrying her?" Bethe knew the answer better than even he did, but awaited his response.

Tom sighed. "My mother made that up. I told her nothing."

"So Merope didn't trick you?"

"Of course she did! Why else would I leave her?" he snapped, exasperated. He got up and started pacing. "I cared about her. I had nothing but honorable intentions towards her, and then all of a sudden we were married! Before I knew it, I had left everything behind without so much as a second thought. I did this for someone I barely knew, someone I didn't even love."

Bethe felt a pang for her friend. It was just as she had feared: believing that Tom returned her love, Merope had thrown all caution to the wind to prove it to herself. She had stopped the love potion...

Tom was still ranting. "There was one night in Italy when I began to remember; the clouds were clearing in my head and I started to wonder what I was doing there with her. Then there was another period where I forgot everything but her. We were so happy." He fell silent for a moment. "Then she went insane, she was going on and on about a po -" Tom broke off and looked at her warily.

"A love potion," Bethe finished for him. "I know all about it."

He looked both surprised and relieved. "She showed it to me, this clear yellow liquid, and let me smell it. I was so thirsty. I wanted the potion, I wanted her -"

"Why did she stop giving it to you?" Bethe asked.

"She said that she had ruined my life," Tom said softly, staring at his shoes. "She said that she had tricked me and that it was wrong, and she had to stop. She told me the truth. I didn't believe her, and then I threw it back in her face. I left her there all alone." He collapsed onto the bench and buried his face in his hands.

"You abandoned her!" Bethe said angrily.

"What choice did I have?" Tom shouted. "Tell me, because I would love to know! She and I were friends. I respected her, I liked her, I trusted her! And then I discovered that she had forced me into this marriage without any consent, bewitched me and caused me to throw away everything I held dear! Tell me, what else could I have done?" Bethe remained silent and he stared at her furiously. "I couldn't hate her. I wanted to so badly, but I just couldn't. She loved me and she wanted me. She did something stupid, not evil. You were her friend, too. You of all people should understand."

"I do understand," Bethe answered, sinking onto the bench. "I'm glad you know that she did it out of love. It was I who made the potion for her, you know."

Tom's head snapped up. "She asked you to make it? And you knew why and for whom?"


"Why the hell would you do something like that?" Tom cried. "You were her accomplice!"

"Yes, I was," Bethe admitted, "but I did it because I loved her. And I would never say it to her face, but I pitied her too." She bent her head. "I remember how desperate and alone she was. She was slaving away in a filthy hovel, Tom. You were her only ray of sunlight and I saw a means to give her happiness. So I did it. You don't know how I've regretted it, how I wish I'd had the strength to say no..."

Tom exhaled and remained silent for some time. "What's done is done," he said finally. "I too have my regrets, but what can I do? She was always good to me, always gentle and loving. She was honest enough to tell me the truth. And I shouted at her and accused her. I told her I would annul our marriage ... I left her money like she was a common whore -" He lowered his head to his knees.

Bethe stared at him. "You annulled the marriage?"

He shook his head. "I haven't been able to make myself do it. I keep trying..."

"Where is she, Tom?"

"My family's cottage in Ireland," said Tom. He paused. "Weren't you supposed to be in Ireland? Merope wanted to visit you. We saw Rose and she said -"

"I returned home months ago," she explained. "Tom, listen to me. We must go to her ... you must. I'm afraid she may come to harm, being all alone with a broken -" Bethe didn't finish her sentence.

"I promised my mother I would stay," Tom said in a hollow voice.

"Are you so happy here that you would abandon your wife?" Bethe asked sternly. "She's still your wife, Tom. She's still responsible for you and you for her. You said that you cared about her, at least -"

"Don't accuse me of being happy here," Tom retorted. "I'll never be happy again. Four months of complete bliss, only to find that it was all fake."

Bethe put a hand on his arm. "Tom, think carefully about this. You don't love her, but you care about her. You were friends before, why can't you live as married friends? At least she would have you with her - that's all she wants, Tom, she wants you and a life with you." He was shaking his head, but she could tell that he was listening. "You were so happy together for that short while. Have you ever been that happy in your entire life?"

Tom was silent. "No," he said finally.

"Then go back to her," she urged. "Go back under the potion. With it, you loved her and you were happy."

"Don't you think I've considered that?" Tom demanded. "I've thought about it night and day. At first I thought it was an after-effect of the potion, but then I realized that it's being here. Listening to my parents bicker, having the villagers moon over me and gossip about me. Don't you think I know that being with Merope was the happiest time of my life?" He turned to look at her. "Do you really think Merope would take me back with this explanation? She would see it as pity. She would consider herself my life's charity work." He laughed mirthlessly. "She's got more pride than a peacock, hidden behind that meek exterior."

"At least talk to her," said Bethe. "Go back and talk to her, Tom. Work everything out between the two of you. It won't do a bit of good to have you on either side of the sea, wondering what could have been."

He gave a long sigh. "I've been here in this gloomy churchyard all day," he remarked suddenly. "I heard that her father had died and I came to see his grave."

"So did I," Bethe said, surprised.

He got up from the bench and led her to the back wall of the church, shadowed by a large oak tree. There was a lonely tombstone there, pathetically small. It read only:


18 Nov 1873 - 1 Apr 1926

The two of them stood there in silence, although Bethe wasn't quite sure whether this was a sign of respect for the dead man or an unspoken pity and affection for his daughter.

Then Tom turned away from her and spoke so quietly that she could barely hear him. "I'll think about it."

Chapter 16: The Birth of Darkness
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Author's Notes: I own the plot, original characters, banner, and all chapter images throughout the story. Everything else is owned by J.K. Rowling. Please be aware that I have blended in my own original ideas with canon information and I'll be happy to discuss anything in a review or a PM.

Chapter Sixteen: The Birth of Darkness
by Girldetective85

"Deep into that darkness peering, long I stood there wondering, fearing,
doubting, dreaming dreams no mortal ever dared to dream before."

- Edgar Allen Poe

Everybody on the ship noticed the young man who, with the exception of his valet, appeared to be traveling alone. He was easily the handsomest man amongst them, well-dressed, and well-mannered, but what attracted the women most was the air of mystery that surrounded him. Instead of mingling with the other passengers, he would walk alone on deck and stare out to sea as though burning for land. He was polite when spoken to but always sad, distant, and armed with excuses to be off on his own again. It came as no surprise that when the ship reached port in Ireland, the young man was among the first to depart.

Tom Riddle had been dying of impatience to leave the ship. The other passengers' intense interest sickened him; it reminded him too much of being at home. Little Hangleton had been nothing more than a zoo, and he and his parents had been the prize chimpanzees. Someone staring into the cage would say, "Look! It ate a banana" in the same exact tone that a Hangleton resident would say, "Look! He came back without a wedding ring!" Tom didn't know how he could ever have been content in that place. He sat on the train across from a dozing Henry, watching the countryside fly past without really seeing it.

For the thousandth time since leaving Little Hangleton, he wondered if he was crazy. Maybe the love potion had permanently damaged his brain. Why was he going back to someone who had tricked him? Someone who had forced him to marry her against his will? But then he asked himself, Was it really against my will? He had visited the cottage and befriended Merope before ever drinking a drop in her presence. Given time, would he have fallen in love with her?

Part of him was shocked by the very idea - Merope was not a woman of his class. But Tom had to admit that she was different. He thought of the rude village girls and of Cecilia with all her fuss and feathers. Between these two extremes was Merope - Merope who had loved him, who had listened to his dreams, whose first care had been to make him happy. She was the first person who had ever loved him that way. What did his parents and friends care for his dreams? Poor men could not afford to dream, and rich men were not allowed. Wealth had many privileges, but freedom - true freedom - was not one of them.

"We're here, sir," Henry said suddenly. "I'll bring the bags out to the carriage."

Tom realized with a start that the train had stopped and followed Henry into the waiting carriage.

"Did you sleep at all, sir?" asked Henry, looking carefully at his employer.

Tom could only imagine how he looked after weeks of sleeplessness. "I'll rest tonight, Henry," he promised. He wondered if it would be in Merope's arms, blissfully muddled by the love potion. Would she take him back? Now that he came to her with his own free will, what would she do? Even more compelling was the potion itself - if the victim were willing, would it still work? Tom had so little knowledge of such things. His mother would call it witchcraft, though she wasn't above visiting the apothecary herself from time to time.

Bethe did not seem at all like a witch. Tom thought of his childhood fairy tales where witches were always cruel and ugly and old, none of which matched her description. She had been Merope's true friend, and her colossal mistake in creating the potion might even have been a blessing. Hadn't she given them four months of perfect happiness?

Tom's heartbeat quickened with each passing minute. When they finally reached the shore, he watched as the cottage appeared. Against the gloomy water, it looked cozy and welcoming. He wondered what Merope was doing. Had she taken care of herself? Had he left her enough money?

The minute the carriage stopped, Tom raced to the front door of the cottage. It was ajar - Merope was home! He pushed it open and hurried inside. "Merope?"

He ran from room to room, peering into the library, the kitchen, the parlor. There was only silence, but perhaps she was sleeping. He raced up the stairs and into their bedroom. The bed was messy, the covers almost falling to the floor. The indent in the pillow was cold. "Merope?" he called again. The dresser drawers had been left open and there was not a single article of clothing or jewelry within. The bathroom was just as empty, the sink dry as bone.

When he returned to the bedroom, Tom saw his envelope lying on the chair. He opened it and found that it was full of money. Every penny he had left Merope was still inside.

"Sir?" Henry appeared in the doorway.

"She must be in town," Tom said decisively. "We'll drive down and find her."

They left the empty house and returned to the waiting carriage. At several cottages along the way, Tom stopped the carriage to question each neighbor. But even when they reached the village and he began asking the shopkeepers, he knew in his heart that their answer would be the same.

The cottage had been dark and quiet for almost all of April. The last time anyone had seen Merope had been at the docks, where she had boarded a ship. No one knew where she was going, but they all assumed she would be traveling abroad.

She had been gone for almost a month and a half and it seemed unlikely, they said, that she would ever come back again.

*   *   *

Merope had known that staying in the cottage would be impossible. On one of her final evenings there she had walked through each dark room, thinking of the happy moments she and Tom had once had together. Then she had gone out to the beach with the phials of love potion, throwing them with all her might into the sea. They had shattered against the rocks, sinking deep beneath the waves.

Back in her room she had filled a suitcase with all the jewels and clothes Tom had given her. She would have enough to get by for some time, but where could she go? What was left for her in Little Hangleton? Tom would be angry if he heard that she had returned; he would think that she was following him.

But Ralph's letter had given her an answer. It had come by owl one night in early May, and she had opened it to find the final confession of a man who would never again see the light of day.


I have done you a great wrong.

I told you once that I lived for revenge, dreaming of the day when I would face the man who had taken everything from me. How strange to accomplish my task and fulfill my dream only to feel empty. Should I have been merciful? Should I have forgiven him? I will never know, but I will be thinking of what I have done for the rest of my days.

I have lost my position at the Ministry, but I hardly care. A life sentence at Azkaban makes a man realize how many things are completely meaningless.

I do care about the harm I have done by robbing you of your father. I hope you can forgive me someday. I wish you a long and happy life with your husband, and I hope you can put this all in the past and move forward.

Ralph Elliott


Merope had understood what he meant by feeling empty. It was something she had often felt throughout her life and she had felt it then. Marvolo had never been kind; with him it had always been anger, cruelty, unfairness. But he had been her father. Maybe he had even loved her mother once, or believed that he loved her. How strange that after a lifetime of hating this man, Merope had nothing left to feel but pity. He had died alone in the end, friendless and unloved, however justified his demise had been.

The next morning, she had taken her suitcase and walked ten miles to the docks. Selling a ruby pin for a second-class ticket to Southampton, she had left Ireland without looking back.

The locket had approved. Since hearing of her father's death, Merope had begun wearing it again. Aside from her brother, who would probably never leave Azkaban, she supposed that she was the last remaining member of their family. But on the final evening of her voyage, it occurred to her that this was wrong. She glanced down at her belly and pictured it round and full of life. She had almost forgotten about the baby.

That's right, the locket said soothingly, you are not the last.

She envisioned the child growing within her, the little boy who would run and laugh and play, and always remind her too much of Tom. "I wish -"

What do you wish, my love?

"I wish that I wasn't going to have a baby," she whispered..

Why is that, Merope?

She didn't answer but only bowed her head, her eyes stinging with tears. This child would always be a reminder of what she had lost. Having Tom's baby would be like having a part of him that was stolen. Tom had never been rightfully hers; why would the child be? She was just like her father, always taking, never thinking.

But now with all the time in the world, she would think. She was determined to think. "Bethe!" she said suddenly. Just the thought of her kind face made Merope want to weep. Now that she had thrown away their friendship, would Bethe be willing to help her again? Somehow Merope felt that she would. Surely Bethe's generosity of spirit wouldn't allow her to hold a grudge, not when Merope was alone and pregnant. Surely Merope could make up for everything she had done, surely they could all live together and her son would have a mother as well as an aunt...

Merope crossed the room and gazed out to sea from the tiny window. No, she wasn't alone in the world after all. She had the tiniest glimmer of hope and she would grasp it with both hands.

Around her neck, the locket had fallen silent. She took its quiet acquiescence as a good omen.

* * *

He would not give up. He would never give up.

But even as he made up his mind, Tom felt that the situation was hopeless. He saw it in Henry's eyes, though the man was too discreet to say anything. He tried to ignore it, tried not to care. I'll find her, he promised himself in every city he went to, she has to be here. He felt sure that Merope would never have gone home to Little Hangleton. Hadn't she repeated over and over that there was nothing for her there? Perhaps if she knew about Marvolo Gaunt's death - but who would have told her? Bethe herself had not written to Merope for fear of rejection, in case the girl mistook her offer of friendship as charity.

In any case, Tom didn't want to go home just yet. He felt sure that Merope was revisiting the places they had gone on their honeymoon. Maybe she was reliving the happy memories just like he was. He stopped in at their hotel in France, inquiring about a young woman traveling alone. He asked for the name "Riddle" as well as the name "Gaunt," in case she was using her maiden name, but nothing turned up.

In Genoa, the kind hotel manager remembered the Riddles but regretted to inform Signor that his wife hadn't been seen since their honeymoon. Frustrated, Tom barricaded himself in his room. He stood on the balcony, watching the tourists and locals below, all dressed in white in the mild May weather. He cursed himself over and over for abandoning Merope. It was true that she had done him wrong, but what kind of man simply took off and left his wife alone and helpless? Where was the honor in that? He had only made the situation worse.

How would he ever find her again? How could he return home and tell Bethe that he had lost Merope forever?

He leaned his aching head against the cool railing and gritted his teeth.

He would not give up. He would never give up.

* * *

Evening came upon Silvermist Woods, bathing it in the sun's last rosy light. It had been warm and sunny all day and many of the houses had open windows for fresh air. As the girl walked past, she looked longingly at the families inside. More often than not, there were two parents and several rosy-cheeked children, sometimes even a dog. In one house, the father was crawling around on his hands and knees with two boys on his back, clamoring for him to go faster. The mother was grinning at the fun until she caught sight of the girl watching them from the street. Her face froze and she over to shut the window, closing the drapes.

The girl felt slightly ashamed, knowing how strange she looked. She was unkempt and dirty from having walked for miles and miles, and gave off the cringing, fearful air of someone who had been physically attacked. No one would believe that she had been the wife of a wealthy man, that just a week ago she had been a passenger on a ship from Ireland. And who could blame them? No one knew that she had gotten lost in a questionable neighborhood on a seedy street, where a depraved couple had torn away her suitcase. They had gone through her clothing and jewelry, gifts of love from her husband. The man had discovered a long wooden stick inside the suitcase and snapped it in half, sneering at her for carrying a "twig." They had resorted to violence when she tried to protest, but she supposed she ought to thank heaven that nothing worse had been done to her.

She had wandered all night in just the clothes on her back, feeling immensely lucky for the silver bracelet, ivory pin, and
wedding ring she wore. They were the only valuables she had left to sell - aside from the gold locket around her neck, but that would never be sold. She clutched it now as she walked on, mumbling under her breath as though praying. She felt faint from hunger and her head ached terribly. She had been feeling queasy for days. She stumbled on, trying to swallow the bile that rose in her throat.

A cast iron gate appeared at the end of the lane, surrounded by huge oak trees. The girl hobbled towards it gratefully, pushing it open with ease. Surely the gate being open was a good sign. Soon she would be inside the beautiful house with her dear friend. She imagined their tearful greetings and quickened her steps.

The brass door knocker was in the shape of an eagle, its talons clutching a faded coat of arms. The girl lifted it once and let it drop, its heavy thud resonating through the air. Within moments, a well-dressed housekeeper appeared. "Yes? Do you want something?" she asked, her face full of suspicion as she took in the girl's soiled face and clothing.

"Yes, I want to see Bethe," the girl said eagerly. She burst into tears of relief and exhaustion. "I've been walking ever so far, and my suitcase is gone, and Tom left and I have to tell her ... please, I need to see Bethe."

The woman frowned at this familiar use of her mistress's name. "Miss Trelawney, you mean," she said disapprovingly. "On what business?"

"I'm her friend," pleaded the girl, "please let me see her. I need to tell her that it's over ... it's all over. I left the cottage and I wanted to see her and I need a place to stay -" She suddenly realized that she was babbling. "I need to stay for the night."

The housekeeper's eyes moved from the top of the girl's head to her toes.

"You have to believe me! She helped me marry my husband," the girl pleaded. "But he's gone now, he won't be coming back because he's angry that I tricked him and..." She looked desperately at the woman. "Let me in!"

"Listen to me, girl," the woman said coldly, affronted by her manner, "if you want some food, I'll give it to you readily but I will not let you in this house. It's obvious to me that you are crazy -"

The girl became hysterical. "No, you have to let me in!"

"Please leave the premises this instant," the housekeeper commanded. "Miss Trelawney will not see you."

Her words seemed to have a strange effect on the girl, whose face went blank. "I understand," she whispered. "She's still angry with me ... she won't allow you to take in anyone who looks like me." She leaned forward suddenly as though she would be sick.

The housekeeper leapt backwards and watched as a heavy gold locket slipped from the girl's blouse and dangled in mid-air. "Are you all right?" she demanded, clutching the door as though ready to slam it shut at any second.

"No," the girl muttered. She turned and began hobbling away, her shoulders slumped as though they carried a very great weight.

Guilt and pity filled the housekeeper's heart. "Wait! At least eat and drink a little before you go!" But the girl continued walking away and didn't look back.

The housekeeper closed the door and stood quietly for some time, sighing at the sad state of the world. She returned presently to her duties, brandishing her wand skillfully to dust the tables. It was nine o'clock at night when her mistress finally returned home from a dinner party. Bethe Trelawney smiled at the older woman. "Did you have a good evening, Mrs. Green?"

"Yes, thank you, Miss," the housekeeper said. "All was peaceful and quiet. You had one visitor."

"Mr. Hunter, by any chance?"

Mrs. Green shook her head. "It was a crazy beggar woman who came hours ago, wearing dirty rags. She looked like she had been walking a great distance."

"She wanted food?"

"I offered her food and drink but she walked away without taking any. She kept asking to see you and babbling nonsense."

"Poor thing," Bethe said thoughtfully. "If you see her again, invite her in and make her eat something."

"Gladly, Miss. I'm afraid I was a little bit hard on her."

The young woman hid a smile. She knew exactly how her prim housekeeper might have behaved towards the poor beggar. "It's all right, Mrs. Green. It pays to be careful these days," she said reassuringly.

"What made me suspicious," said the housekeeper, "was her fine jewelry. There was a lovely ivory pin ... French-made, I'll wager. Ten to one she stole it!" She paused for a moment, allowing Bethe to hide another smile. "And there was a heavy locket round her neck, dangling from a gold chain. I would swear to the Wizengamot that the emerald on it was absolutely authentic."

"A real emerald?" Bethe asked lightly."

"Yes, it was the eye of a snake - or the letter 'S.' The locket was so big I could see every detail on it ... Miss Trelawney? Are you all right?"

The young woman did not answer, for a heart-stopping realization had just occurred to her. That had been no beggar woman knocking at her door.

* * *

The heat was positively stifling in wizarding London. As she struggled through the noisy streets, Merope thought longingly of Little Hangleton's sun-dappled woods. She clutched her groceries tightly. The ivory pin she had sold in May had given her enough money for three months. She had carefully rationed every Knut; If she dropped this bag of food, she couldn't eat for a week.

Her building was several blocks away and though the neighborhood wasn't very good, it was better than nothing. She struggled up the steps, ignoring the way her bulging stomach strained against her dress. The building was quiet for once, but the landlady who lived on the ground floor had her door open as always. Mrs. Barry was a sniveling old witch who loved intruding on her tenants' lives. She hated Muggles with a fanatical passion and had actually forced Merope to perform magic before renting the flat to her. Merope felt sure that the woman snooped around her flat when she went out. Not that there's anything to find there, she thought bitterly, picturing its sparse interior. She hurried up the stairs to avoid talking to the woman.

"Ah, there you are, Miss Gaunt," came Mrs. Barry's scratchy voice.

"Good afternoon," she mumbled, continuing her ascent.

"Your rent is overdue by a week!" the landlady screeched. "I'm giving you three days, Miss Gaunt! Three -"

Merope slammed the door of her flat and collapsed on her bed, the beginnings of a headache tightening around her temples. Tomorrow I'll sell the bracelet, she decided. It wasn't worth half as much as the pin, but it would get her through September. After that, she would sell her wedding ring. She guessed that her rent would be even more expensive in the winter. And after all the money was gone, what then? How would she care for the baby?

As if on cue, he gave a hearty kick inside her womb. Merope placed a hand on her belly. She couldn't get used to the idea that this would be a living, breathing person, one who would occupy all her time and drain her of her savings. Even now he was draining her of strength, demanding food that she could barely provide. When he emerged, he would become yet another person to lose.

Merope often fantasized about changing the past. Had she not let Tom go, she could be facing a winter of warmth and security with him instead of hunger and uncertainty alone. It had been five months since she had seen him last, but she dreamed about him so often that she often woke up and was surprised that he wasn't beside her. She missed him so much that sometimes it was a physical pain, tearing through her with frightening strength. She would gladly give anything, even this nuisance in her womb, just to hear his voice once more.

Exactly what did she live for? What was the point of just surviving when not a soul on Earth cared whether she lived or died?

Well, that wasn't quite true...

Merope slid onto the floor, reaching beneath the bed for the loose floorboard where she kept the most prized possession she had left. After all her belongings had been stolen, she had been careful never to wear the locket outside the flat.

You're right, the locket said approvingly. I am the only one who cares about you.

"I'm afraid," she confessed, holding it close to her heart. "Sometimes I just want to end it all." Her eyes strayed towards the window and the three-story drop that lay beyond.

Don't you dare think about it! You're carrying a child and you are responsible for him.

"Why?" she demanded. "I didn't ask for him, did I? I don't even want him!"

Doesn't he deserve a chance to live as you have? it argued. Did he ask to be conceived?

The locket had a point there. "I suppose you're right," Merope answered doubtfully. "But sometimes I think that you want this baby more than I do."

You're right, Merope, and that is because I know what he can become ... what he will become.

"I didn't know you could tell the future," she muttered.

There are a lot of things you don't know. But I cannot allow you to hurt him, not after all I have done to ensure his survival.

"You haven't done anything," Merope argued, annoyed by its bossy voice. "Tom and I made the baby, he belongs to us -"

And who was it that cared for you when you were ill? Was it Tom? it asked sardonically. It was I who made sure you survived after your wastrel of a husband abandoned you.

Merope thought of the sad-eyed man who had looked at her without speaking. That had only been a dream... surely she had imagined him. "You're just a locket," she whispered.

It was laughing, taking pleasure in her confusion. Oh, my poor naive child. I am so much more than just a locket. Tell me, who encouraged you to love Tom when there was no hope? Who nurtured your pathetic dreams of being his wife while you were slaving night and day for your useless father?

"You did," whispered Merope.

Who told you how to save Riddle's life when your brother hexed him? Who told you how to enhance the love potion to make it stronger than your silly Bethe could have imagined?

Merope swallowed hard. "You."

That's right, it agreed, still laughing. And best of all, Merope ... who planted the seed of doubt into your mind? Who suggested that Tom only loved you because of the potion?

"You did," she said impatiently, "but why? You went to all the trouble of encouraging and helping me get Tom. Why did you want me to stop the potion?"

I didn't want you to stop it, it replied slyly. I wanted you to need it more than ever.

And suddenly it all became clear. The locket had goaded her, implying that without the love potion she wouldn't be able to keep Tom. Out of pride and curiosity, she had stopped feeding Tom the potion to see what would happen. Merope remembered the panic she had felt at his cold expression, at his refusal to tell her he loved her back. She remembered running downstairs, craving the potion and the way Tom would hold her once she gave it to him. Giving it to him had become even more of an obsession after that night, after she had discovered how the true Tom really felt.

That was how Tom had stayed with her long enough to conceive their son, before she made the decision to release him.

Her mind was racing back over the events of the past year. Behind every important occasion, the locket had been there, whispering in her ear. She dropped it onto the floor with trembling fingers.

"Who are you?" she whispered, her heart pounding.

Why, Merope, it said with mock surprise, I should have thought you'd know me by now. Haven't you heard my name enough from the lips of that bastard you called a father?

"No..." She backed away into the corner as though it would bite her. "It can't be! You're just a locket!"

Is that any way to treat your dearest relation? Come and let your loving Salazar take care of you...

Merope kicked it clear across the room, holding her pounding head between her hands. She was going crazy, she felt sure of it. "Leave me alone!" she shouted.

Now why would I want to do that? You are my business now, Merope. Everything depends on you...

Before she fainted, Merope thought she saw the filmy white figure of a man emerge from the locket. He walked towards her, an ironic smile playing on his lips, and then the world disappeared from her eyes.

* * *

All that mattered was getting rid of the locket.

When November came again, cold and rainy, it was the only thought that occupied Merope's mind. She knew that it could read her feelings sometimes, especially when she felt saddest, so she guarded her thoughts as carefully as she could. Outwardly she was meek and obeyed the locket's every word without question; inside, she was plotting and fuming.

Why had she never questioned the locket? All this time it had been manipulating her. It had exploited her love for Tom to achieve its own ends: the creation of this child, which seemed to be of the utmost importance to it. She hated the baby even more. Sometimes she thought the locket and the baby were conspiring together. Merope felt like she was going mad. Her head hurt with impossible thoughts and she was constantly paranoid, afraid to sleep because she thought the locket was watching her. She was terrified of the bearded man with the cold eyes that saw right through her.

Nothing seemed significant anymore. She hardly cared when Mrs. Barry evicted her, demanding the rent she couldn't pay. She had sold her wedding ring months ago and everything she owned was gone. Except the locket...

She had taken to placing it in her dress pocket. It seemed like the only way she could stay sane, because she couldn't stand having it next to her skin anymore. The nights got colder and longer. Sometimes Merope had to wait until the shops closed before she could creep onto a doorstep or stairwell and sleep. A stolen blanket was her only source of warmth. The child inside her was always kicking, demanding food, but rarely could she find a stray Sickle to buy a bun or a potato.

One afternoon, when her frostbitten fingers and her cough seemed to be at their worst, Merope wandered through the streets looking for a jewelry shop. A couple standing in front of a bakery pulled their children close as Merope passed, but she ignored them. Down a dark alleyway, she found a potions shop with a blood red sign, a questionable-looking cafe, and a dusty bookshop. No jewelry store appeared and for a moment, she sagged with despair.

What do you want with a jewelry store? the locket's voice asked.

"I just want to ... look around," she answered lamely, knowing that depression made her more vulnerable to the locket and trying to cheer up. It didn't seem to be fooled.

You are thinking of selling me! it said furiously. I didn't think you'd have the nerve, you ungrateful little tramp!

Merope looked around desperately, trying to ignore the locket's tirade. It was then that she saw it: a dingy storefront with a deformed mannequin and a hippogriff head in the window. A large navy blue sign read "Borgin and Burkes" in faded gold lettering. She hurried over and examined the objects for sale, an electic mixture of odd and morbid items she couldn't imagine anyone wanting. It's worth a try, she decided.

I helped you! I took care of you! screeched the locket, and beneath its fury was fear.

The shopkeeper looked up when Merope entered the shop. He was a small man with a ruthless, intelligent face, advertising the fact that of the two who had founded this shop, he had the greater mind for business. His gaze swept over Merope with mingled disgust and curiosity. "Can I help you?" he asked in a gravelly voice.

"I would like to sell something," Merope mumbled.

"Caractacus Burke at your service," he replied, frowning as though he couldn't imagine wanting anything she possessed. "We make no promises to buy here at Borgin and Burkes, but I will assess the item for you free of charge. I will name a price if I'm interested."

Merope reached into her pocket and pulled out the locket. Immediately it became red-hot to the touch and she dropped it on the counter with a cry, cradling her burnt hand.

Mr. Burke didn't seem put off in the least. On the contrary, he bent and poked it with his finger so that it lay face-up. He pulled out a silver loupe and looked at the locket with it. He stayed in that position for so long that Merope began to grow nervous. Finally he raised his head. "Do you know what this is, girl?" he asked in a hushed, excited voice.

Look at this place! the locket was shrieking. You cannot leave me here, you stupid girl! You cannot!

Merope blinked at him. "It's a locket," she said quietly.

A satisfied smile spread across Mr. Burke's face, as though she had proven him right about something. "Quite right, my dear," he said condescendingly. "Well, well. And what are you prepared to accept for this locket of yours?"

You cannot sell me, you little harlot! I am priceless! Priceless, do you hear me?!

Merope thought for a minute. She had no idea what the locket was worth and she hoped Mr. Burke would not see this. "Whatever you are prepared to offer," she responded, trying to seem calm and knowledgeable.

"What do you say to ... five Galleons?" he suggested, studying his fingernails. He darted a glance at her.

"Five Galleons?" she repeated dumbly.

Mr. Burke's lips thinned. "Too little? What about seven Galleons, then?" Merope didn't answer. "Ten Galleons, then. That's my final offer, young woman."

You'll regret this, Merope Gaunt ... I will make you pay! Do you hear me? I will make you pay!

"Done," Merope said quickly. She caught the faintest flicker of astonishment on the shopkeeper's face and wondered if she should have asked for more. She knew so painfully little about money. Well, too late now, she thought, snatching the heavy gold coins he counted out for her.

You cannot escape me! the locket screamed at her. You can never hide from me!

"Have a good day, my dear," Mr. Burke said sardonically, flashing his yellow teeth at her.

Merope turned and left the shop without looking back once.

* * *

The pain began on the very last day of December.

Merope had slept all afternoon in a stairwell, trying to ignore the brief but persistent spasms of pain that had been shooting through her midsection. She woke with freezing cold legs and looked down to see that her dress was soaked through. She hardly had time to register this fact before she felt another heavy, cramping pain in her abdomen, stronger than what she had felt all day. "Oh!" she groaned, pressing her hands to the small of her back. It ended quickly enough and she gazed down at the wet fabric clinging to her legs, fearful that something was wrong. Her heart was pounding and she touched her stomach gingerly.

She wanted to find a warm place to wait for her dress to dry, but what place would be open tonight? She had slept the day away, knowing that it was the best cure for her pain and hunger. It was almost completely dark now. She got up and wandered back through Knockturn Alley, shivering in the cold. Several groups of people were huddled here and there, but no one troubled her. Something in the young woman's face kept them away.

Merope continued on and turned her face to the velvety night sky. It was the end of 1926. Tonight people would celebrate with their loved ones, toasting the start of a whole new year. She tried to imagine what Tom was doing now. No doubt he was in Little Hangleton, celebrating with his parents and their fancy friends.

Another cramping pain shot through her torso and Merope cringed, crying out loud. She held her breath and willed it to go away. It seemed to last even longer this time, radiating from her back as though something had punched her there. She felt sick to her stomach with fear. Was this childbirth? How soon before the baby came out? She wished desperately for someone to hold her hand and tell her that everything would be all right. But she was alone in a dark city, her breath hanging in the cold air like a ghost.

She walked on for some time, pausing whenever the pain coursed through her body, cursing the cold and the way it seeped into her bones. When she finally looked up, Merope realized that she had gone into an entirely unfamiliar part of London.

The dark shops looked gloomy, but down the street she could see the bell tower of an immense church. Somehow, she realized, she had made her way into Muggle London. Merope staggered in the direction of the church, but never quite made it. Immediately to her left was a large brick building where two women were talking. They stood in the open doorway, watching her approach.

"Hello there!" called one woman anxiously. "Are you all right?"

Merope threw herself on the steps. "Please ... help me," she moaned.

"Good God," said the other woman in a hushed voice. "She must be sick."

"Hannah, help me carry her inside," the first woman commanded.

Merope felt them raise her from the ground and walk her up the stairs. The warmth of the house felt like the most beautiful of kisses on her face. One of the women shut the door and they continued half-pushing, half-carrying her into a room off the main hall.

"She's not sick, Hannah," the first woman remarked suddenly. "She's giving birth."

"Good God," Hannah said again. "When do you suppose she ate or bathed last, Louise? She's positively filthy."

Louise looked down into Merope's face. "What's your name, child?"

"Merope Gaunt," she whispered, just as another racking pain tore through her body.

Louise shook her head. "You must breathe through each contraction. Don't hold your breath like that," she advised. "Hannah, help me take off her dress. She needs to be changed, she'll catch her death of cold in this wet gown."

The pain worsened as the night went on. For the first time in months, Merope wore clean clothes and lay on a bed, but she had never felt more miserable. Hannah and Louise took turns bathing her, all the while instructing her to breathe. Finally they had begun to tell her to push, but she simply had no strength left. "I can't," she sobbed, her forehead damp with sweat. There was a ceaseless weight in the core of her body, a primal urge beneath the pain, and despite her claim Merope pushed with all her might. Every now and then, Hannah or Louise would tell her to rest and she would lie back on the bed, weeping from sheer fright and pain.

"Tom," she whispered, as though the name were a balm for her suffering. "Tom, Tom..."

"Who is this Tom she keeps talking about?" whispered Hannah, wiping Merope's brow with a cool washcloth. "You don't suppose it's the father?"

"Must be," Louise agreed grimly. "No wedding ring on her finger. I see enough of these cases a week to lose all confidence with the world. Young girls taken advantage of and left to fend for themselves."

"No," Merope moaned, "no, I loved him, I did..."

"Whatever you say, child. Now push!" Louise commanded.

"This baby is much too big for her," Hannah whispered fearfully. "It will surely kill her, Louise, unless we can get a doctor at this hour of night..."

The other woman shook her head gravely. "It's too late now. Do you see how far along she is? She'll have to push no matter what - this baby wants to be born."

For hours, Merope alternately pushed and rested, pushed and rested, in an endless maddening cycle that made her want to die. How long would it go on? What if she lay here forever, bleeding to death? She wanted Tom so much, it was almost as painful as the birth itself. Had she not stopped the potion, even now she could be giving birth in the cottage by the sea with his arms around her, his voice reassuring her...

At last, she heard the women grow excited. "Push, Merope! One more push!" Louise cried urgently, and with her final push Merope felt all of the strength bleeding from her body. There was a great release, a brief silence, and then the shrill bawling of a baby.

"Congratulations, my dear," Hannah said with a weary smile. "You have a son."

It all seemed like a dream to Merope as the two women cleaned and fussed and laid the swaddled newborn beside her, still squalling with his face red as a tomato.

"This one came fighting into the world. He's a beautiful boy," Louise remarked gently, nudging the baby closer to Merope. "What will you name him?"

Merope looked into the face of her son for the first time. His black hair was matted against his head and his eyes were the deepest shade of blue she had ever seen. It was much too early to tell whether the baby resembled anyone, but she thought she could see Tom in his tiny, wrinkled features. "Tom, after his father. I hope he looks like his father," she whispered.

She pictured her husband's face and then quite unwillingly, the face of her father floated into her memory. Tom Riddle and Marvolo Gaunt - two men who had loved falsely, two men who had given their hearts only to snatch them back. Would this child follow in their footsteps? Would he ever love only to realize that it was all an illusion?

She felt so lightheaded, as though she were drifting above the bed watching this scene play out before her eyes. And when she said, "His name will be Tom Marvolo Riddle, for his father and grandfather," she was drifting even more. By the time they took the baby away and covered her lifeless body with a white sheet, Merope was in the air. She sailed right out of the window and into the endless night.

Behind her, she left a baby boy who stopped crying to stare up at the stars as though they were very beautiful to him, as though with one chubby hand he could grasp the universe.

Author's Notes: I own the plot, original characters, banner, and all chapter images throughout the story. Everything else is owned by J.K. Rowling. Please be aware that I have blended in my own original ideas with canon information and I'll be happy to discuss anything in a review or a PM.

by Girldetective85

The Death of Riddle

Little Hangleton. July 1942.*

"Thank you very much, sir," said the polite young man, handing some money through the window of the car. "It was a pleasant ride."

The driver beamed. "A pleasure to serve you, my boy. Enjoy yourself and be sure to visit the bakery. Mention my name to Mr. Shepherd and he'll give you lunch free of charge, mark my words." As he turned the car and began driving back down the road, he thought what a good lad his passenger had been. If he ever had a son, he would want him to be as charming and as respectful as that young man.

If he had looked back, however, the driver would have seen that the young man's face had changed completely. He watched the car disappear with a scornful, almost angry expression. "Fool," he murmured. "As if I need your filthy name to benefit in this world." He began walking up to the village.

Little Hangleton was a vision of pastoral beauty on this bright summer day. Sunlight streamed onto the cobblestone street and illuminated each shop window. Here and there, people chatted with neighbors and called out gaily to each other. A little boy who was playing with a red rubber ball dropped it by accident and it happened to roll right to the young man's feet. Gallantly he handed the ball back to its owner, who stared up at him with round eyes.

"Say thank you, Ben!" called the boy's mother. When the boy didn't respond, she walked over with a good-natured smile. "Sorry about that. He's a bit shy around strangers -" Her voice trailed off as she looked more closely at the young man.

"That's quite all right," he answered courteously.

The woman's eyes took in the wavy dark hair and the pale, aristocratic face. "Have we met?" she inquired. "You seem ... familiar to me."

"I don't believe so. This is my first visit to Little Hangleton," the young man replied. "By the way, I wonder if you'd kindly give me directions. I'm looking for a certain cottage." He gave her the smile that lit up his eyes. "Sorry to be a bother, but you see I've never been here before."

She looked charmed. "Why, certainly. Do you know the name of the people you're looking for?"

"Yes. I believe the family is called Gaunt."

Her smile faded. "Y-yes, of course," she said uncertainly. "Take this road through the village. At the fork, turn right up the eastern hill."

The young man smiled again, flashing perfect white teeth. "I'm much obliged to you, ma'am." He walked right past her as though utterly oblivious of her shock. He noticed the villagers staring and ignored them, concentrating on the road.

The cobblestones turned into a dirt lane that divided into two branches. He took the right branch which sloped upward into a wooded hill. Though he looked as calm and unperturbed as ever, his heart was pounding. This was the moment he had been waiting for. At last, the questions he had asked for over fifteen years might finally get some answers.

A filthy cottage came into view. The yard was strewn with rubbish and the droppings of wild animals, and the young man picked his way gingerly to the front door. The place seemed almost uninhabited and for a terrifying moment, he wondered if he had come for nothing. Slowly, he raised his hand and knocked. As he waited, he examined a crusty spot on the door that looked as though something scaly had dried there. Before he could find out what it was, the door flung open.

The man who stood there was in incredibly sorry shape. He was short with hunched shoulders and the dirtiest hands imaginable. His hair and his beard were wildly overgrown and unkempt, giving him the impression of some sort of relic from the prehistoric era. He stared at his visitor with undisguised astonishment that rapidly turned into hatred. "You!" he said hoarsely. He raced into the disgusting room, grabbing broken bottles to use as weapons.
Don't even think about it, the young man said in Parseltongue. Touch me and you'll regret it.

His host gasped audibly, dropping the bottles with a crash. You speak Parseltongue?

The young man smiled haughtily. Obviously, he responded, sweeping into the cottage as though he owned it. Tell me, where is Marvolo Gaunt?

He's dead, said the bearded man. Died a long time ago, he did...

The young man frowned. "Who are you, then?" he asked, switching back to the common tongue.

"I'm his son Morfin, aren't I?" The bearded man parted the thick hair that nearly covered his face, trying to get a good look at the visitor. "I thought you was the Muggle come again. You look so awfully like that Muggle..."

"What Muggle do you speak of?" demanded the young man sharply.

"The handsome Muggle who lives on the western hill," Morfin explained weakly. "The one my sister took a fancy to. Stupid cow, hankering after a filthy Muggle. They ran away a long time ago..."

The young man staggered backwards at this information. Good Merlin ... so this was the answer! It had to be; it all made sense. This was why he could never find any trace of his father at Hogwarts. He had searched the library, pored over records for the name of Riddle, and examined the trophies and plaques for nothing. His father was a bloody Muggle.

"He came back here, though," Morfin continued, his face darkening. "Left her, he did, and it serves her right too. She stole Slytherin's locket. It's gone forever!"

"Slytherin's locket," the young man echoed, his mind still reeling. He walked slowly around the room, eying a wand that lay on the armchair.

"One of my father's treasures, it was," said Morfin, "along with this." He pointed to a ring on one hand, its black stone glimmering faintly and reflecting the young man in its murky depths.

"I see." Without ceremony, the young man grabbed the wand from the armchair and pointed it at Morfin. "Stupefy!" Morfin Gaunt collapsed to the floor and lay motionless. The young man pocketed his uncle's wand and left the cottage, retracing his steps to the fork in the road. This time, he took the left lane and followed it to the mansion on the western hill.

The enormous manor house was dramatically different from the Gaunt cottage. He crossed the courtyard, staring coldly at the fancy stone fountain and the marble cherubs, and knocked on the door.

The servant who answered could have been knocked over with a feather. He gaped at the visitor, his eyes as round as saucers. "May I help you?" he croaked.

"I want to see Tom Riddle."

"W-which one?" stammered the poor servant. "The Squire, or young Master Tom?"

"The young one, I suppose," said the young man carelessly, brushing into the hall without invitation. The servant showed him into a room at the end of the hall and scurried away. It looked like a great drawing room, a vast, funereal chamber hung with dark tapestries. The mahogany furniture looked a hundred years old, as did the fireplace. A portrait of a rigid-backed couple hung over the mantelpiece and the young man pored over their faces for a resemblance.

If he still had any doubt that Tom Riddle was his father, it disappeared the moment the Muggle himself walked into the room.

For a moment, it was like looking into a mirror. They had the same wavy dark hair, the same straight nose, the same thin-lipped mouth. The only difference was that the older man's green eyes were sad, and the younger man's eyes were full of a raging dark fire. They stared at each other tensely for a long time.

"My God," the Muggle finally whispered. "Who are you?"

"I think you know ... Father," said the young man hatefully, smiling with such malevolence that the older Tom backed away. "Although it wouldn't surprise me if you had completely forgotten her - the pregnant wife you abandoned so eagerly."

Tom was shaking his head faintly. He sank into a chair. "No..."

The young man laughed mirthlessly. "You deny this? Then you are less of a man than even I thought." He reached into his pocket and drew out Morfin's wand, stroking it lovingly with his long white fingers. He enjoyed the way the Muggle looked at it with confusion and anxiety. "Tell me. How long was it before you decided to leave her? The day she told you she was pregnant? And you realized that it was no fun for you anymore..."

"I didn't know she was pregnant!" Tom cried, burying his face in his hands. "I didn't know!"

"Liar." The word was uttered with the strongest hatred possible, and the young man pointed the wand right at Tom's heart. "You, sir, are a liar and a coward and you deserve to die."

Tom simply raised his head and looked at his son. His expression was full of resignation and emptiness, rather than the fear that the young man had hoped for.

"You accept your death readily, Tom Riddle. Have you any last words?"

"Listen to me," Tom pleaded. "Your mother - Merope - was in love with me. She wanted to marry me. She fed me a love potion and tricked me into running away with her." He closed his eyes. "I found out about the love potion and I got angry. I left her, but I swear to you that I tried for years to find her again. I couldn't... I didn't even know she was pregnant." Suddenly he looked eager. "Is she with you?"

The young man gave a loud snort of derision. "No, she is not with me," he snapped. "She is dead."

Tom shut his eyes again. "Dead."

"That's right," said the young man, gleefully seizing on the Muggle's grief. "You left her alone and desperate and penniless. She was a beggar when she gave birth to me in London, they said. She wept and called your name and died a painful death. She suffered a great deal, you know -"

"Enough," Tom croaked, lifting a hand to ward off his son's words.

"She lived long enough to give me a name. Your name." The young man looked around the room disinterestedly. "I suppose all this will be mine when you're dead and buried. Which you will be momentarily." He returned the wand to his father's throat. "Of all the filth in this world, she had to go and choose you. You disgust me. Stupid, foul, ignorant Muggle."

Tom said nothing. He only sat in the chair and looked up into his son's eyes.

"Avada Kedavra!"

The flash of green light struck Tom Riddle directly in the chest. His dead body fell from the chair and onto the carpet with a thump.

"What is going on in here?" complained a woman's querulous voice. She and an old man appeared at the drawing room doorway. "Tom, dearest, what was all the commotion -" She caught sight of the body on the rug and looked back and forth between it and the young man standing there. "What -? Who -?"

"What's all this bloody nonsense, Tom?" demanded her husband grumpily. Apparently he was near-sighted and hadn't noticed anything out of the ordinary. "I thought you said you were going out riding -"

The young man regarded them coldly. Then he pointed his wand at each of them in turn. "Avada Kedavra!"

He looked at the bodies with great satisfaction. His work was done. Out in the hall, he heard the servants coming to see what had happened to their masters. Quickly he pushed aside the heavy draperies and slipped out of the drawing-room window, just as a young maid entered the room and began screaming and screaming.

A beautiful sound, he thought with a chilly smile, making his way back to the Gaunt cottage. He kicked the door in and looked at the motionless body of his uncle. Removing the wand from his pocket, he gave it a quick wipe with his shirt sleeve and laid it beside his uncle. "Thanks for the ring, Morfin," he whispered, slipping the black stone from the man's finger and onto his own.

With his own wand, the young man performed the bit of complicated magic that would insert a false memory into Morfin Gaunt's brain. Then he whispered, "Rennervate," and the man began groaning.

"Tom Riddle," Morfin grunted, looking up at his nephew.

"No. That is not my name," the young man stated flatly, and walked right out the door.

Bid Time Return**

The boat is a strange one. It is forever shrouded in mist, and how the captain manages to see anything is a wonder, what with the dense fog that covers the sea. Strangest of all, there are hundreds - maybe thousands - of passengers on board and they all seem to be waiting for something. There are all kinds of people on this boat: male and female, young and old, rich and poor, crippled and healthy. Yet these things don't seem to make a difference; after all, everyone is in the same boat.

Every now and then, the boat stops and somebody steps off into the mists.

"Where are they going?" the young woman asks a lady who looks knowledgeable.

"Home, of course," the lady replies, smiling.

It seems to make sense to the young woman and she nods, watching the fog in silence again. She has been waiting to go home for a long time, but she knows that there are others on the boat who have waited even longer. She isn't even sure she knows what home is. She never really had a home; at least, a home that she loved. She lifts her face to the sky, but she can see nothing through the mists. Come to think of it, she hasn't seen any water either. She would just as soon believe that the boat was sailing in the clouds.

"When will I know that it's my turn?" she whispers.

"You'll know, deary," the lady says reassuringly, patting her hand. "You'll know."

She doesn't know how long she waits, but it is for some time. Like the other passengers, she spends her days walking along the deck, trying to see through the mist in vain. There is no need to sleep or eat here; they are only to wait. She knows that she has to be patient.

And one day, as promised, the young woman realizes that it is her turn. The boat begins to stop and she steps off onto solid land, conscious of the other passengers watching her enviously.

She sees nothing at first and she is afraid that the boat will leave, that she will be lost within the mist forever. But slowly the fog begins to part and she sees a distant green land, stretching beneath the sun like a glittering emerald. There are mountains, endless majestic peaks covered in gray and brown. She hears the sound of the sea, a shimmering blue ribbon that mirrors the sky and crashes against the rocks.

She begins walking in the sand, listening to the gulls cry to one another, and a sense of familiarity and anticipation fills her. She is hardly surprised when the little cottage comes into view, neat and tidy and surrounded by a little fence.

On the lawn in front of the cottage, a man and a little boy are playing. The little boy is running and clutching a stuffed toy, and he squeals with joy when the man catches him and lifts him into the air. They both seem to know that she is there and turn to watch her approach.

The boy disengages himself from his father and runs to her, his little pink face beaming with joy. She picks him and says, "Tommy, how big you're growing!" as if she had always been there.

The man walks towards them, his handsome face filled with perfect happiness, his arms outstretched for the two of them.

"Welcome home, Merope," he says.


* Date is approximate and taken directly from canon.
** Title is inspired by Richard Matheson's novel of the same name.

Author's Notes: Typing those two little words "The End" gave me such a surreal feeling! Just one year ago, in August 2007, I sat down with a Merope Gaunt plot bunny in my head and the skeleton of a story. Sixteen chapters and an epilogue later, I'm sitting here with the first novel-length I've finished since I was nine years old.

I've come such a long way since joining HPFF last summer. I've grown so much as a writer and I've made so many wonderful friends. They kept me going through every chapter, asked questions, gave advice, poked at me when I got unmotivated, and voted for my story at the 2008 Dobby Awards. There are so many people to thank for all this that I won't name names, but simply say: you know who you are. THANK YOU.

I am going to mention one person by name, and that is of course J.K. Rowling. Without her, none of us would be here playing on her playground.

Thanks for sticking with me throughout my whole story and offering your criticism and feedback. If you're an aspiring author too, this story is dedicated to you.

Oct. 19, 2008