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Chapter 1 : Amidst the Thorns
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What stare outfaces now my silver moon!
Ah! keep that hand unravished at the least;
Let, let, the amorous burn –“ John Keats ("Ode to Fanny")
Not every fairy prince will be your rescuer.
She spied him through the twining, thorny vines of the blackberry bush, its juice bitter on her lips as her gaze seared through the space between them.
Between her, and him.
The Riddle boy.
Tall and pale, with hair rich as sable and eyes like deepest wells. The sun’s rays lingered on the boy, painting his cheeks with healthy roses, as though it, too, wished only to stroke desperate fingers across that exquisite face.
He sat proudly atop a snow white horse–a magnificent creature, finely built and highly spirited. If ever anyone looked like a prince off to rescue his lady love, it was he.
And if ever a girl was in need of rescue, it was the girl in the shack on the hill.
From that moment on, it was as if his hands had wrapped around her beating heart, his gentle fingers there to shield her from the brambles and thorns. He had unknowingly gained possession of her pierced, aching soul and, what was more, the delicate, dying sprig of her hope.
The boy, Tom, had stolen her heart.
And she would have one in its place.
She would have his.
The Gaunt shack looked rather like it sounded. Grim, spartan, and generally dingy, despite an overall lack of dust. The men of the house considered it beneath their dignity to look to such things as cleanliness, so all household duties fell to young Merope, the last remaining daughter of the once noble House.
The crumbling structure had once been a charming cottage, though a visitor would scarcely credit it. There were vestiges there, if one knew how to look–a bit of crown moulding left on the wall, a hidden corner containing the cracked remnants of a cheerful coat of primrose-coloured paint. The ragged cloth that hung before the window had once been a fine piece of lace, but now hung askew, blocking the light like a moth-eaten shroud.
The roof was dilapidated, missing tiles so that one could stare straight up through the rafters into the outdoors, though the sky was never visible through the tangle of nettles and leaves. Unsightly brown water stains spotted the floor, covered here and there by a scrap of rug.
Merope managed to keep the worst of the filth at bay, and though she never even attempted to convince her father or brother to bathe at regular intervals, she herself did her best to keep clean.
The keeping of even such a small space was difficult. Merope could only perform her cleaning spells if her brother and father were out or asleep. With their cold eyes watching her, their hard fists striking at her, and their hissing tongues mocking her every effort, Merope could barely manage a spark of magic in their presence. There was no money to purchase Muggle cleaning supplies, but she had done her best to make do, having stolen a feather duster from the nearest neighbors and fashioned a rough mop with her own hands.
But for this one evening, the Gaunt men were both gone, Morfin out hunting with his snakes, and her father doing Merlin knew what out in the forest. Times like this, the little shack could almost feel comfortable. Not safe–never that–but comfortable.
Merope twisted the locket about her neck, unable to contain her excitement as she peeked through the one grime-free window in her closet-sized room. He would be here any minute, passing by on his evening ride. Tom Riddle, the squire’s son.
The most beautiful boy she’d ever seen.
He was a fantasy, she knew, but he was her fantasy, and what else did she have to do, between scrubbing the pans and ducking the fists, but to close her eyes and dream? To dream of the day her Tom would come by, would recognize her love for him, would see her as a gem amid the squalor and lift her into a proper, gleaming setting. Every time her eyes shut on the dark night, it was his face that appeared behind them, his mouth curving into a secretive smile as he leaned toward her lips.
Merope had never been kissed. She didn’t want to be. Not by anyone but him.
She was jolted from her reverie as a familiar voice, deep and crisp, rang through the trees.
“Easy girl, easy there,” he cautioned. Merope peered out the window to see that Tom’s white mare was tossing her head, spooking. He looked around as he patted her neck, searching to see what could have startled her. “Good lord, is that a snake?” he exclaimed, presumably to no one but the horse.
Merope’s cheeks burned. Morfin had nailed the unfortunate creature to the door the day before, after it had bit him. It had been a mere garden snake, and she was disturbed to find herself mourning the fact that it hadn’t been venomous.
Disturbed, but not entirely sorry.
Unable to help herself, and needing a better view through the leafy branches that grew thickly in front of the house, Merope shoved open the sash and leaned out the window.
He had control of the horse again, now, and was walking forward slowly, away from the shack, rubbing gentle circles into her neck and murmuring quietly. Merope wondered what it might be like to have that voice, cold and clear as a forest spring, whispering to her when she was frightened.
It seemed it would be a wonderful thing.
“What are you doing?” a voice hissed from behind her, and Merope spun about, her arms wheeling as she nearly fell through the open window.
Morfin reached out to grasp her by the arm, hard, his fingers digging deep into her flesh. Yanking her back inside, he shoved her out of the way as he looked toward the window. He stared with narrowed eyes at the casually retreating figure of the squire’s son before whipping around to turn his poisonous glare upon her.
“You filthy little whore!” he cackled, speaking, as always, in Parseltongue, the language of serpents. “Leaning yourself out the window, ready to fall into the arms of a filthy Muggle. How d’you dare?” He slapped her across the cheek, leaving behind a bright red weal, and Merope whimpered.
He slapped her again. Blood burst from her lip. She tried to imagine the sound of Tom’s voice, tried to imagine him calming her like the horse, but she was already quaking, already shrinking.
She couldn’t remember. She couldn’t escape.
Merope sank down to the floor, arms folded over her head as meagre protection. Morfin stared down at her with blatant disgust.
“Never mind you,” he spat, the glob landing on her stinging cheek. “I’ll teach you a nice little lesson. An’ your little Muggle lover, too.”
Merope couldn’t hear him. Merope wasn’t there. She rocked back and forth on her heels, humming a snatch of a tune someone must have sung to her once. Her mother, perhaps? Who could know? She hummed louder. She couldn’t hear the hissing. None of this was happening. It wasn’t real.
It wasn’t until she heard a shout from outside–Tom’s voice–that she snapped from her trance.
“I say! What in the blazes–”
There was a low zing and a scream.
“No!” Merope screeched, glancing at the window but unable to see. She scrambled out of her tiny whitewashed room, out the snake-studded door, and onto the path. Morfin was laughing uproariously, hissing allegations that the Riddle boy could not understand as he brandished his wand, shooting arcs of red and green light that Tom tried to dodge.
He had fallen from his horse, and had clearly been caught by at least one bad hex. Angry red hives were swelling across his face and neck, marring his beautiful features.
He stumbled, fell to his knees. Morfin hopped back and forth on his feet, an enormous grin stretched across his face. “Whoopsie daisy little Muggle! Morfin’ll teach you your place. Cruci–”
“MORFIN, NO!” Merope threw herself in front of Tom, feeling a pain like an ax blow slicing into her side.
She wheezed for breath. Morfin had paused and was standing frozen, plainly shocked.
She turned her head to see Tom. One of his eyes was swelling shut, and he was shaking his head in horror, looking from her to her brother.
He stood and staggered toward his horse, which had tried to flee but, to his good fortune, had become entangled by the reins in the thick growth of the glen. He was reaching for a stirrup when he paused, peering over his shoulder to look back at her guiltily.
He bit his lip, as if unsure what he ought to do, but the terror of what he had seen–of what she might be–was still plain on his face.
“Go!” she mouthed, gripping her side, which still burned. She couldn’t manage to speak–had never been able to say a word to the man she desired above all else–but she managed that much. He nodded and, self-preservation clearly winning out over chivalry, hauled himself up into the saddle and galloped off into the distance.
“I can’t believe it,” Morfin whispered, staring at the Muggle’s retreating form, glancing back to his sister. “Just can’t believe it.”
Then he tossed back his head and howled in laughter, delivering a sharp kick to Merope’s side. “There’s for you, Muggle-lover! An’ you’ll be lucky if I don’t tell Father. Ha! Haha ha!”
His foot crashed into her ribs again. And again. Until Merope closed her eyes and knew nothing more.
One day later...
The shack was silent.
There were no shouts. No clangs. No smack of flesh pounding against flesh.
They were gone.
Merope sat on the floor and tried to breathe. The strange little man from the Ministry had left, and she had thought that it would be the end of her. Her father had such a rage in his eyes, and as his gnarled hands had clasped around her neck, she had felt a strength, a murderous intent, that she had never felt from him before. Merope Gaunt would die and be buried, somewhere behind the family’s hovel, with no one the wiser. Not the distant neighbors. Not the Ministry.
Not even Tom would remember her. They would have already made him forget.
She shivered, clutching at the long grey coat a kindly Auror had draped across her shoulders after they had subdued her father and brother, hogtying them with magic and hauling them out the door.
Out that door.
They were gone.
She felt at the tender bruise blooming around her throat, let her fingers trail over the reddened welt that had not faded from her cheek.
They were gone.
And she was free.
Within a week, Merope was feeling almost like a different girl entirely. She buzzed about the house–her house, for now–like a hummingbird, humming snatches of tunes she’d caught while walking in the village.
The Gaunt shack was as clean as it had ever been during her lifetime. She found that without her father’s cold-blooded stares, away from her brother’s cruel jibes, she could wield a wand better than she’d ever have believed. The cleaning spells came naturally, and it pleased her to finally be in an orderly space. The grime lifted off the stovetop, the mud stains slipped out of the rugs, and she even managed to repair most of the fallen ceiling tiles. With a fresh coat of whitewash, the shack looked almost...homey.
But that was merely for her own small satisfaction. She had wanted to leave everything in good order, but this was no place for her to stay. Here, her heart fluttered like bird’s wings at every snapped twig, every sudden sound. Some frightened corner of her mind was certain that they would be back, that this could not be real. This was not a place that could ever be truly safe. And besides, Merope had far greater aims in mind.
She wasn’t sure when it occurred to her that now that she was free–really free–she could go speak to Tom, but the idea hit her with such force that she sometimes had to sit down.
She could find Tom. She could meet him. She could make him love her.
It was a simple enough plan, really. Merope felt certain that if she could be near to him for long enough, he would feel the force of her love. It would be catching, like a raging fever. In the face of such tender feelings as she possessed...surely he would love her back?
So she had concocted her scheme. Her father had always made it quite clear that Muggles did not recognize the marks of pure magical blood as attractive. Features such as her crossed eyes, for example, were thought of as a disfigurement by those who did not know their worth or significance. Any witch or wizard of truly pure blood was bound to show such signs.
Merope didn’t hold it against Tom that he would not see this. She knew she wasn’t beautiful to begin with, but that was easy enough to fix. Every evening for a sennight she had sat bent over a spell book, painstakingly sounding out the words–neither she nor Morfin had ever been sent to school, lest they mingle with those of lesser blood, and as a result Merope was no great reader.
But she was determined.
She found she had some skill with potions, and managed to brew a concoction that gave her eyes the illusion of a straightforward gaze. She rinsed her hair out with a mixture that cleared it of oil, leaving it softer and thicker. She was still no beauty–too pale, too thin, with nothing classical to the shape of her face–but she thought she would pass. And this was the afternoon to test it.
Returning to the large carpet bag by the door, she shoved her clean cauldron and spell book into its magically extended constraints.
Merope stopped by a highly polished copper kettle–there were no looking glasses in the Gaunt house–to check her reflection. Her hair was piled neatly onto her head in the same way she had seen the village girls wear it. Her dress was grey, and threadbare, but mostly covered by the much nicer coat the Auror woman had left behind after her family’s arrest.
It would have to do.
She walked towards the door, clutching a newspaper advert stolen from a neighbor in her left hand.
Wanted, a household maid of good character. Experience with cleaning and plain needlework required. Age 18 to 22–no exceptions. Apply Thursday between 2 and 4. Address Mrs. Mary Riddle, 27 Winder Road, Little Hangleton.
Merope smoothed the wrinkles from the advert and folded it crisply, placing it in her coat pocket. She reached down to grip her carpetbag in one hand, opened the door, and simply walked out. Out of the dark forest glen and into the bright light that gilded the path to the village.
And never–not once–did Merope Gaunt look back.
The Riddle home was imposing. A very fine manor house set atop a hill, looking out over the village like a nosy neighbor peering down their nose at their inferiors.
The furnishings were quietly expensive, and the carpets muffled the sounds of the servants shuffling up and down stairs, slipping through green, baize-covered doors and down their secret halls like scampering mice.
Merope felt rather like a mouse surrounded by such grandeur. The whole of the House of Gaunt could have fit into the entrance hall, where she was currently dusting a bronze statue of a rather sad-looking greyhound.
Mrs. Riddle had not, in actuality, been the one to hire her on as a maid, but rather the housekeeper, Mrs. Thistlewaite, a formidable woman in her mid-fifties whose face was set in a constant attitude of squinting disapproval. Merope had had no character reference to offer, but apparently responses to the vacant position were low, because the older woman had been convinced to put Merope’s skills to the test, tossing her into a long-empty guest room with orders to have it spotless within two hours.
Merope could almost be grateful for her years of being unable to clean with magic, scrubbing floorboards and dusting with rags in a way no other witch would have to. She’d got by on that until Mrs. Thistlewaite had grown bored of observing her and toddled off. Upon her return, Merope’s magic had made certain every surface in the room was at a high shine.
The housekeeper had peered at her suspiciously before shrugging her shoulders and declaring that the girl, dull as she looked, would do.
It had been her second day at work that Merope, newly dressed in a prim little maid’s outfit–the newest, cleanest thing she had ever owned–had been waxing the floor near the downstairs drawing room, and had eavesdropped on Mary Riddle’s response.
“Mrs. Thistlewaite, you know you needn’t bring the tea tray up personally. Couldn’t you send one of the girls to do it?”
“Well, I would, but the newest is still in training, ma’am.”
“Who is that, then?”
“Merope Gaunt, ma’am. Far too fanciful a name if you ask me. I’ll call her Mary, and nothing else,” the housekeeper sniffed.
“The Gaunt girl? Not the old tramp’s daughter, surely? The one that lives in that filthy little hovel over the hill?”
Mrs. Thistlewaite hesitated.
“I couldn’t say. I’ve never seen the place myself. Though if you’ll forgive me, ma’am, I will say I find it hard to believe she’d come from anyplace dirty. Neat little thing, she is.”
“I think it’s marvelous, Mrs. Riddle,” boomed the cheerful voice of the vicar, who had been invited over to tea. “A fine example of Christian charity, so long as she can do the work. The whole neighborhood does look to your family to set a standard.”
It was Mrs. Riddle’s turn to hesitate, but clearly she did not feel that she could contradict a man of God outright. The villagers would talk.
“Mhm. You’re quite right, Mr. Ponselby. No doubt it will be good for her, so long as she can keep up.” There was a pause, a small slurp of tea, and then, “That will be all, Mrs. Thistlewaite.”
Merope hopped away from the door, pattering silently across the room, and was innocently waxing away by the time the housekeeper walked back through the corridor, passing her without comment.
She was still bent over, polishing the floorboards, when something shoved her sideways and flat onto the ground. There was a grunt and an “Ouch!” and she felt a substantial weight fall atop her legs.
She turned her head.
Tom Riddle was lying on top of her.
His weight lifted abruptly from her legs as he jumped back to his feet.
“....must be the new girl? You really ought to be more careful. You can’t be kneeling there as a tripping hazard to any gentleman who walks past...”
He was saying something. She couldn’t quite focus on what. A hint of displeasure was ticking at the corner of his mouth–he was probably embarrassed at having tripped over her. But he was handling the whole thing so kindly. Father or Morfin would have beaten her to bruising if she’d been caught in the way, but instead, Merope found herself near to gasping for air as he reached down to clasp her hand and haul her to her feet.
Tom’s hand was touching hers. It was cool and dry and so, so soft.
He stopped talking as his dark eyes narrowed. He stared, deeply, into her face.
She tried to breathe. She really tried. But it was taking some effort, and she couldn’t help but think that if she did faint, he would probably catch her. For a moment, she would be in his arms. It would be worth it.
“You know,” he said softly, the frown lines across his forehead burrowing deeper, “you look terribly familiar.”
Her own eyes widened. She did? Was there a chance that the Ministry had botched the memory charm? Could he really remember her?
“What’s your name?”
“Merope,” she whispered, her voice shaking like a leaf. “Merope Gaunt.”
“Gaunt?!” He stepped back and eyed her up and down as though something about her didn’t quite match up. “Hmm. Yes. I suppose you are. You look...different.”
For a moment, Merope was floating. She looked different. Perhaps the potions she had thought would make her look average had done better than she knew!
“Cleaner,” he added, and she felt her heart fall a bit.
She nodded silently. Tom stared at her for another moment, then shook his head and shrugged.
“Well, er...Merope was it? Just watch out where you’re sitting and you should get on just fine here. I’m sure I’ll see you about.”
He nodded and then headed down the corridor. She should say something. She knew she should say something.
“Thank you!” she said to his back, still in a low, mousy voice, but this time the air had run through her vocal chords. She had made a sound. “Thank you.”
Her name. She had finally said something to Tom Riddle. Her name, and thank you.
It seemed right.
Merope got lost in the house quite frequently, and she would sooner dart behind a houseplant than speak to a passing footman. She was such a quiet little thing, the other servants might have picked at her, but she found an unlikely champion in Pauline, a fellow housemaid.
Pauline was sharp-tongued and had a bit of a reputation, but liked Merope because, in Pauline’s words, “Well, you clean fast enough that I can afford to get some beauty sleep. Not ‘alf so mindless as the rest of these simpletons.”
For the first time that Merope could really remember, she felt almost content. Her work was pleasant–dusting and polishing and waxing might be back-breaking for Muggles, but as long as she was left to her own devices, she could have any room clean in a trice. And even when she did have to do things the Muggle way, she didn’t really mind. There was something satisfying in the simplicity of it all, in putting everything in order.
No voices were ever raised in the Riddle House. She was a good worker, and no servant ever struck her. It wasn’t a lively place, but it was peaceful.
Her attic room was small, her group of acquaintances smaller, and perhaps her whole world was small, but that did not change the fact that it was the largest world Merope had ever known.
And there, at the center of it all, a sun twirling gloriously in the midst of orbiting planets, was Tom. Even to a lump of rock as cold and distant as she, he spread warmth.
The other servants didn’t care much for the family, and Merope could understand why.
Thomas and Mary Riddle were cold. Their most common expression was a haughty scowl that would have been at home on Merope’s own father’s face, and she could never claim to have found that pleasant.
But they were wrong about Tom. Tom was different.
He was quiet, and shy, and perhaps he did know his own importance, but she saw nothing wrong with that. In fact, if he had been anyone but a Muggle, Tom’s conviction in his worth would have been something Marvolo Riddle himself could have quite admired.
When she was around Tom, she didn’t feel quite so small.
Perhaps it was true that his parents would never approve of their union–a housemaid and a member of the gentry. But theirs were cramped, dim Muggle minds, spaces too small to comprehend the complications. Tom was heir to a fine fortune, but his lineage held no magic. Merope was from the noblest of sorcerous stock, but had no money. Neither was popular, and neither was well-understood, though that was through no fault of their own.
There was never a pair more more perfectly suited, more totally equal, than Tom Riddle and Merope Gaunt.
And soon he would see it.
There was just one problem.
“Tom, darling!” crooned the blonde woman on the settee. “We are going for a ride today, aren’t we? I must show you my new riding habit. It’s positively stunning.”
“I’m sure it is, Cecilia dear,” Tom replied indulgently, chasing some biscuit crumbs around the tray with his thumb.
Miss Cecilia Baneworth, of the Derbyshire Baneworths, was a hag.
Not a real one, unfortunately, or at least not so far as Merope had been able to deduce. But despite the fact that she possessed not a drop of magic, the hateful little minx had managed to bring Tom entirely under her spell.
She came by nearly every day, for luncheon with his mother, for a ride through the forest, to help plan a charity auction (though she spent far more time discussing what she might wear to the event than she did the plight of the poor).
The Riddles loved Miss Baneworth. Loved her. And, what was worse, Tom seemed rather taken in as well. Granted, he did not give her half the affection he gave to his horses, but Tom was an English gentleman. The only person who would receive near as much devotion as his mare or his dogs would probably be his wife!
Cecilia was snobbish, arrogant, and just that very day she had caused Pauline to spill an entire tea tray all over herself, cracking the porcelain teapot, and all without so much as a “beg pardon”.
“Well inn’t she quite the fine lady?” Pauline snorted, sparks swirling from her cigarette in a slow, smoky descent. They were out in the kitchen yard after dinner, Pauline leaning against a doorway, looking surprisingly glamorous for a servant. She offered Merope one of the strange Muggle smoking sticks, which she declined politely.
“He’ll marry her though, you mark my words. The family’s mad for her money, and she’s the great-great grandniece of an earl, or some such.”
“You don’t...” Merope whispered timidly, her toe poking tentatively at the pieces of gravel in the yard. “You don’t suppose he really loves her, do you?”
Pauline choked on a laugh and a lungful of smoke.
“Love? Bah! I doubt the future ’lord of the manor’ is capable.” She paused, raised an eyebrow. “Well, he’s plenty capable in the physical sense, and mind you don’t fall prey to it. You wouldn’t be the first maid sacked over the likes of ‘im. But he’s not the sort to fall in love with anything more than his own fine self.”
“I don’t believe that.”
Pauline scoffed. “Ha! Think what you like. A girl like you should know there’s more to life than a pretty face. But if it makes it easier for you to change ‘is sheets and fetch ‘is tea tray, then you go right on believing...”
Merope was no longer listening. She was deep in thought. She was pained by the truth behind Pauline’s words.
How tragic, if her Tom never knew love because of Miss Cecilia Baneworth. He’d never feel the exquisite swooping of his stomach, the tingling in the skin at the slightest touch, the breathlessness of a longing glance.
She could give that to him.
No, it wouldn’t be what she’d hoped for–a slow-burning, steady-building sort of love. But that could come in time. For now, she could save him from Cecilia. She could give him at least a taste of the overwhelming passion she felt for him.
If he could feel even a fraction of it, surely he’d never, ever, be able to let her go.
Merope sat in the corner of her shoebox-sized room in the attic, her small cast-iron cauldron sitting before her, the potion inside a pearly, shifting concoction that bubbled dreamily. With the fingers of her right hand, she traced the vellum page of her spell book, sounding the words aloud to make sure she hadn’t missed a single step. With her left hand, she stirred the concoction with precise, anti-clockwise strokes.
Only once her lips had formed every spidery word written on the page, only when she was positively certain, did she reach into her apron pocket and pull it out.
There, clutched in her hand, was a fine silver comb, borrowed from her true love’s room when she went in to tidy up that morning. His pillow had still born the imprint of his head when she had reached out to fluff it, and she tried to imagine what it might be like to wake up, Tom’s head still resting on his pillow, his heavenly features smiling over at her beside him.
Something bubbled low in her stomach–nervousness, excitement, fear?
Carefully, she plucked a single hair, dark as a raven’s wing, from the comb. Merope then reached up to her own head and, with a pinprick of pain, yanked a few mousy strands from her scalp. Taking a shuddering breath, she plaited them together with Tom’s hair, and dropped their threaded locks into the cauldron.
The shining liquid frothed and foamed, swirling around the confines of the cauldron of its own accord before abruptly dropping back into a gently simmering stillness. A pale, glistening tendril of smoke rose from the pot, snaking its way under Merope’s nose, and she breathed in deeply.
Shoe polish, aftershave, and the bitter tang of blackberry juice.
It smelled delicious. It smelled like Tom.
She wondered what it might smell like for him.
With unsteady hands, she ladled the potion into three small vials. Three doses.
It would make more sense, Merope had decided, to introduce Tom slowly to love. He was a Muggle, and hadn’t been exposed to much magic–she didn’t want to overwhelm him.
Besides, a more protracted administration of the potion would be similar to the actual experience of falling in love–sliding a bit, and then falling the rest of the way. That was what it had been like for Merope. She had been in love, fully in love, with Tom from the first time she glimpsed him through the blackberry bush, but she had found that every time she saw him, she fell deeper and deeper.
Besides, three doses, three meetings, three chances at true love? It would be just like a fairy tale.
Tom deserved that. They deserved that.
A real romance.
So she stuck a stopper into all three bottles and slipped the first one into her apron pocket, tucking the others between her mattress and the wall. She tripped down the servants stairs, barreling into the kitchen just in time to hear the bell ring.
It was tea time.
It was fate.
“And so, then I told her that she really ought to reconsider that awful hat, because it made her look like a plucked chicken. And oh, Tom, you would not believe–”
Tom nodded vaguely, then turned his head to see Merope entering the room, struggling under the weight of the tea tray.
“Ah, tea. Thank heavens!” he exclaimed as she set the tray roughly down on the small table, the china rattling almost as much as her teeth would have been, had Merope’s jaw not been so tightly clenched.
Tom glanced at Cecilia, as typically the lady present would pour, but she merely frowned, obviously displeased at the interruption.
“I don’t see why we should stand on such ceremony, Tom. It’s the 1920’s, for heaven’s sake! Just let the girl pour it. Or you might do it yourself. At any rate, as I was saying...” Cecilia pivoted to look out the window down into the valley below, continuing to expound upon the thousand and one reasons she had recently given a childhood acquaintance the cut direct.
Tom rolled his eyes expressively and shifted on the couch to look back at Merope, those same dark eyes taking on a playful gleam. He raised an eyebrow at her, smiled in her direction, and winked.
Tom had winked at her, and he hadn’t even tasted the potion yet. Surely that meant he liked her?
And Cecilia–horrible, hateful Cecilia Baneworth–had given Merope all the opportunity she needed.
Merope felt her heart expand as if an Engorgement charm had been placed on it. It was thumping nervously against her locket, loud enough to be percussive.
She tried to steady her shaking fingers as she gripped the tea pot, upended it, and poured just enough into two delicate porcelain cups. For Tom, a generous pour of cream, no sugar. She left Cecilia to add her own embellishments.
Tom looked away for a moment, feigning attention to Cecilia’s endless diatribe, and Merope saw her chance. She reached into her apron pocket, plucked out the vial of Amortentia, and poured it into Tom’s cup. The saucer jingled merrily in her head, like a tiny tolling bell, as she handed it towards him.
Their fingers brushed. Her breath caught and she leapt back as though jolted by pure electricity.
Tom took a sip.
Blinked. Looked down at his cup. Inhaled deeply.
“You know, this is really quite remarkable. Has Cook got some new variety of tea? Oolong, perhaps? It seems different...”
He glanced up at Merope, and stopped cold. Tilted his head.
He grinned at her.
“You’re looking lovely today, Merope,” he murmured, barely audible under the low buzz of Cecilia’s soliloquy. “The uniform quite suits you.”
Merope blushed. All the way down to her toes.
“Would you like a biscuit?” He picked up a gingersnap off the tray and extended his hand, offering it to her.
Merope didn’t think she could bear to eat a thing, but she couldn’t say no. She reached out for the biscuit, this time allowing her fingers to intentionally brush against his palm. A delightful frisson of tension ran down her spine, and she felt Tom’s hand jerk.
He’d felt it. He’d felt it, too.
His lips were pressed together, his brow furrowed in confusion, but the dark depths of his eyes were warmer than she had ever seen them. His hand was still hovering near hers, not quite touching, not quite moving away.
Cecilia was still chattering away at the window, but neither of them paid her any mind.
“Are you happy here?” Tom murmured, his voice soft and clear as moonlight. “I hope you are being treated well. I find I can’t bear to imagine otherwise.”
“I’m happy,” Merope breathed, trembling. “I’m happier than I’ve been in all my life.”
“Good,” he answered, smiling at her with such openness that for a moment Merope truly thought she would burst–a soul so unused to happiness surely could not contain so much?
He reached forward, not even an inch, and took her hand, squeezing it.
“Good,” he repeated.
“Tom?” Cecilia snapped, and he jumped, dropping Merope’s hand and shaking his head in confusion. He turned to look at Cecilia, frowning.
“Have you been listening to a thing I’ve said?”
“Honestly, Cecilia, no, I’ve not. There have been more interesting things in this room to occupy my mind with.”
For a moment, Cecilia merely stared at him, her perfect, doll-like features painted with affront.
“Things like what?” she demanded finally, stepping between him and the maid, whom she didn’t seem to realize was still present.
Cecilia scowled viciously, an envious Venus, as she moved to stand before Tom, her golden tresses swinging forward to eclipse his pale, handsome face. Hands on her hips, she stared down at him, one overarching desire plain on her face: possession.
Merope could not see Tom’s expression, but she could clearly discern the boredom in his voice as he answered. “Really, Cecilia, surely you don’t imagine yourself to be the very centre of my universe.”
“Well, if I’m not, then who is, Tom?!”
Tom paused, momentarily silenced.
Merope was overwhelmed by a dark feeling in her belly, surging and strange. She was...jealous. Furious.
Tom was hers.
Cecilia reached out a dainty hand toward his cheek, and Merope found herself wishing she could curse that hand. Burn it with fire. All it would take was a flick of her wand.
The feeling quite surprised her. She had never possessed such a violent thought in all her life.
Suddenly, he shifted, moving away from Cecilia’s touch and looking past her. His deep brown gaze settled on the plain-faced girl in the maid’s uniform. It did not waver.
“Mer–” he choked, breathing deeply. “Me–”
It was as if he couldn’t quite get the words out. He dropped into a coughing fit and, hacking horribly, pushed away Cecilia’s reaching arms as one of his own hands flailed, accidentally knocking over both cups of tea.
“I’m sorry,” he said, looking between them, shaking his head wildly. “I’m just, I’m feeling so strange. I have to–”
And then, with another violent cough, he jumped for the exit, barreling through the great oak doors and out of the sitting room entirely.
For a long moment, Cecilia was silent. Merope saw colour growing in her cheeks. The lady was mortified. She tilted her chin to stare down at Merope with a look of intense distaste.
“Well, what are you standing there for? Clean that up!” She motioned to the mess that Tom had made, and then, with a huff, flounced out of the room, slamming the doors behind her.
Merope knelt down, beginning to pick up the shattered porcelain pieces.
It had worked.
Tom was falling in love with her.
It had worked.
A/N: Hey everyone! Thanks for coming and checking out this story! I'm planning on splitting this section into one or two chapters, but I've decided to submit this first bit together, to make sure that at least this much is in by the deadline for Aphoride's Romanticism Challenge!
I owe several people some thank yous for helping me get this far with this story. A special shoutout to Shazalupin and OlderShouldKnowBetter on the forums for beta*ing this story for me, and another huge thank you to ScorpiusRose17 for providing me with my title. HPFF is such a great community, guys! There's always someone to answer my desperate cries for creative help. Love y'all!
Also, if you have any sort of opinion at all on this chapter, I'd really appreciated if you'd scribble it down in that little grey box there! It's waiting for you! ;)
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