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
"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...
"GIRL! MIND THAT WATER!"
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.
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