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
"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.
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