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
"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.
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.
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