Chapter 14 : Give Up This Fight
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"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.
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