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
"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?"
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.
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.