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Chapter 2 : Shy Little Thing
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“Where’re you going?”
Merope didn’t answer, and her fellow housemaid clucked her tongue, propping a fist on her hip. “I see the way you look at him. You ought to know better. Things like that don’t end well for the likes of us.”
Merope merely stared at her with pleading eyes. She appreciated Pauline’s concern. Truly, Pauline was perhaps the first person in her life to have ever shown true regard for her well-being. Well, apart from Tom. But the other maid didn’t–couldn’t–understand what was between herself and the future lord of the manor, what was growing between them every day.
Pauline shook her head and sighed deeply. “Well, long as you know what you’re getting yourself into. Have a care, alright?” Then she went back to dusting, leaving Merope to creep out of the house and around the side, down to where the horses were kept.
The stones clicked and skidded beneath her sensible black shoes as Merope made her way down the gravel path, stopping in front of the stables. The door gaped open, a dark mouth, and from within she could hear the small sounds of large creatures--nickers and snorts and the sudden sound of iron-shod hooves beating against brick and wood.
She quickly patted her apron pocket, making certain what she needed was still there, and, steeling herself, Merope took a breath and stepped into the barn.
At first she was blind. The stables were dimmer than the outdoors. Sunlight seeped in, rays and beams cascading through skylights and glassless windows, catching the dust mites in their eternal waltz. The scent struck her--hay and musk, sweet oats and apples, and the low, pervasive notes of manure somehow mingled together to form a perfume that was strong, though not altogether unpleasant.
It took a moment, but her eyes adjusted to the light. The stable ceased to be a crude sketch in black and white, and took on colour and texture. The sights and smells and animal sounds swirled to form an atmosphere that was unfamiliar, but strangely comforting.
Merope stopped walking as one shape, in particular, coalesced out of her sunstruck eyes and took on a familiar form.
Tom was there.
He had taken off his riding jacket and laid it over the saddle stand, and was standing in his shirt-sleeves, his beautiful white mare waiting patiently in the middle of the brick walkway between stalls, clipped to the cross ties to keep her from running off as he ran a curry comb over her coat. He gave her a pat on the neck and whispered something into her ear, which was pricked with interest.
The horse nickered and rubbed her head against his chest. Lucky thing.
Then, the creature made a noise that sounded oddly like a loud harrumph, as though she did not appreciate her time with her owner being interrupted. She tossed her head in the maid’s direction, causing Tom to glance up.
“Ah, Merope,” he greeted, his eyes still fixed upon her as he went back to his task of brushing. “What are you doing in the stables? Mrs. Thistlewaite decide they need a good scrubbing?”
For a moment, she was in shock. The way he said her name...
He had said it before, but it sounded different now. Warmer. As though he hadn’t had to search the depths of his mind for it, as though it had been right there for the taking.
“I was joking,” he clarified, dark eyes twinkling.
“Joking. Oh. Do you--do you do that often?”
Merope wanted to slap herself across the forehead. What sort of a question was that? But Tom seemed to be genuinely considering it, his brow furrowing thoughtfully.
“No, actually. Not nearly enough. You make me want to, though. Do you mind it?”
She shook her head rapidly, looking down at the floor so that he wouldn’t see her blush.
“Shy little thing, aren’t you?”
He chuckled, then walked over to a bucket hanging on the low wooden wall, dropped the horse’s comb inside, and dusted off his hands. To Merope’s surprise--and delight, and terror--he didn’t return immediately to his mare, but walked over to where she stood.
He reached behind her and she barely contained a gasp. His arm slid around the small of her back...
And pulled the saddle blanket from where it hung on the stall behind her.
He grinned, briefly, then tried to assume a serious expression, taming the corners of his mouth as he stepped away. Tom Riddle was teasing her.
And it didn’t feel like he was laughing at her. It felt, strangely, like she was in on a joke. Tentatively, Merope smiled back.
Whistling, Tom tossed the quilted white blanket over the mare’s back, sliding it into place, then grabbed the fine leather saddle and placed it on top.
“Would you be willing to hand me that girth over there?” he asked, and Merope jerked to attention. She didn’t know anything about saddles and such, but it would be impossible not to know what he meant, as he was pointing directly at the long leather and wool belt-like contraption that was hanging behind her, near where the saddle blanket had once been.
Automatically she grabbed it and stepped toward him, then halted. The horse had shifted its head to look at her, those large, liquid eyes boring into her. She hadn’t realized, watching Tom from afar, quite how enormous the beast was. It towered over her.
Tom looked back and forth between them--his maid and his horse--cocking his head.
“Come now, surely you’re not afraid of horses?”
“I--” Merope cleared her throat nervously. “I simply haven’t had much experience with them, my lord. And...and she’s rather...large.”
The horse punctuated Merope’s statement by stamping a hoof. She jumped. She wasn’t a footman, and so she did not typically serve at the table, but she was still quite certain that the creature’s foot was the same size as some of the Riddle’s dinner plates.
Tom smiled again--had he always smiled so much? She didn’t think so--and took a step toward her.
“You don’t have to call me ‘my lord’, Merope. I don’t have a title.”
“Well, what should I call you then, my lo--er...sir?”
“Oh, good lord, please not that!” He shook his head. “How about you call me Tom?”
“I--really? Are you sure?”
He nodded decisively, that ghost of a smile still lighting up his features. “Yes, I am. In fact, I’m quite sure of it.”
“Mrs. Thistlewaite won’t approve,” Merope heard herself saying.
She wasn’t quite sure why she was protesting, except that she was a bit worried that he would hear the love in the way that she said his name. He’d only had one dose of the potion, after all, and men were supposed to be jumpy about things like that--Pauline had said so.
“Mrs. Thistlewaite,” he informed her in a teasing tone, “is a frightful bore, as is everyone else up in that house. Well,” he amended, giving her a speaking look, “nearly everyone.”
“Al-alright,” she tried, tentatively. “Tom.”
Apparently he saw nothing amiss in the way her voice caressed the single syllable of his name.
“Well, Merope, now that you’re on a first name basis with me, I’m afraid it’s only proper that you meet my horse.”
“I--” She made to protest but was cut off as Tom’s arm wrapped around her waist, this time absolutely on purpose. She dragged her heels as he pulled her forward to face the enormous creature, pulling her to a halt just in front of it.
“Cadmia, this is Merope. Merope, Cadmia.” He leaned down to whisper in Merope’s ear. His breath tickled the sensitive skin behind her ear, and she shivered. “Don’t try to tell her she’s a horse. It doesn’t work. She’s far more particular than my own mother.”
Not really sure how one properly greeted the horse of the man one was in love with, Merope met Cadmia’s eye and bobbed a curtsy. “It’s a pleasure, my lady.”
At this, Tom snorted. “Now she won’t tell you not to use a title. I rather suspect she thinks she’s the queen.” The horse threw her head, tossing it up and down in a wild nod, whinnying shrilly. Merope jumped back on instinct--she couldn’t help but be a bit frightened--but still, she grinned.
Tom turned to look at Merope, tilting his head down for a better view of her face. “You know, you’re so quiet I wouldn’t have thought you’d have a sense of humour.”
“I suspect you’d have confused me with a piece of furniture,” Merope said, feeling surprisingly bold.
“Don’t be silly. The upstairs breakfront doesn’t have nearly as much polish as you do.”
“Perhaps I should go see to that,” Merope said, turning away to hide her smile. She took a few steps toward the barn doorway, but Tom caught her hand.
“Don’t go,” he protested. “I haven’t enjoyed myself this much in ages.”
“Really,” Tom affirmed. “If I’m telling the truth, most of the servants do seem a bit like furniture. They don’t appear to have much personality. But you,” he reached down and, with two of his fingers, lifted her chin. “You’re different.”
Merope felt her heart begin to pound. Nervously, she took a step back.
The potion. If it weren’t for the potion, he wouldn’t be seeing her at all--she’d be another servant to him, another piece of furniture. And he’d only had one dose. She thought she’d brewed it strong, but Merope was new to potionry. What if it wore off at any minute, and she would fade into the background, never to see Tom’s smile, to hear his real laugh, again? He barely knew her. He just had to see her for long enough to know her--to realize that he loved her, too.
She had to give him the potion, now, before it was too late.
“I...it’s hot today.”
Tom raised an eyebrow. “The weather, Merope? Oh, come now, don’t be like all those society ladies. A girl as interesting as you must have more to say than that.”
“Not really. That is. What I meant to say...” She paused, flustered, before pulling her arm out from behind her and shoving it forward. “I brought you this.”
Tom cocked his head, observing the metal flask gripped in Merope’s hands. He seemed surprised.
“That was kind of you.” He reached for the flask, taking it from her gently, and paused, considering. “Do you know, there’s another thing--none of the other servants have ever done anything like that. They do what I ask them, of course, but no one ever...” he trailed off. Looked up. “You really are an unusual girl, Merope Gaunt.”
“No,” he answered, a small grin sprouting up at the corner of his mouth. “No, I don’t think it is.”
He lifted his arm to rub it across his brow, wiping away the gathering beads of perspiration. “Lud, it is rather warm today, though.” And, without hesitation, he unscrewed the top of the flask and raised it to his lips, knocking back a long swig.
“Mmm, that’s refreshing. That’s the clearest water I’ve ever tasted. You don’t think about water having a taste but this...” he lifted it again, downing another gulp. “It’s delicious.”
He shot her a look that sent delightful chills sweeping down her arms. Tom Riddle was looking at her as though he could drink her down, as well, every last drop, and still would not be sated.
He shook his head, as if to clear it, and straightened, tugging at his collar. Abruptly, he motioned to the horse.
“Erm...would you like to feed her?”
“Well, as you two are the only ladies present, one would imagine that’s who I meant,” he said with a wink.
“I, er...” Merope looked up at the massive creature, all powerful muscle and teeth and hooves. She gathered her courage. She could do this for Tom. She had done braver things than this. “Yes.”
His eyebrows lifted in surprise--obviously he had expected her to require much more coaxing--but he reached into his trouser pocket and pulled out a carrot. Cadmia’s nostrils flared and she whinnied softly, staring longingly at the orange root.
“I was never so good at eating my vegetables as she,” Tom admitted, placing the carrot in Merope’s hand, his fingers lingering, tapping against her palm. “Now, you’ll want to keep your palm very flat, and hold it just under her nose. You needn’t fear her biting you--she’ll lip it right up.”
Merope flattened her palm, eyeing the mare nervously as she took a step forward. She held it too flat, and the carrot rolled right off her hand, but she caught it before it hit the ground. Slowly, she took the last step forward, and held out her offering to the horse.
“Oh!” she gasped, as Cadmia ducked down and snapped up the carrot, her whiskery nose snuffling into Merope’s palm in a way that felt almost ticklish. The horse nudged her shoulder, and this time she didn’t step back.
She reached out a tentative hand to pat it on the neck.
“Well, now you’ve won her over,” Tom announced from where he leaned against a hitching post, his eyes gleaming with pride. “I must admit, I’m quite jealous.”
Merope wiped her palm on her apron and turned to face him. “I rather suspect she still likes you best. Tom.”
He lifted the flask to his lips and took another sip, swallowing luxuriously. Merope couldn’t tear her eyes away, watching as he lifted an arm to wipe his mouth against his sleeve.
“I’m not jealous of you. I’m jealous of Cadmia.”
“Because,” he grinned, “she got to kiss your hand. That seems to me a rare privilege.”
Merope's stomach was doing flips.
“I think she may be the first,” she admitted.
“Really. Then would you permit me to be the second?”
Tom pushed off the wall, strode forward, and captured her hand in both of his, holding it carefully, like an exotic butterfly, as if with one wrong move it could be lost to him forever. He bowed over her hand, like a gentleman to a lady and, very slowly, raised the back of her hand and pressed his lips along her knuckles, one by one.
When his eyes raised again to meet her own, the teasing gleam in them was gone. There was surprise there, and gratitude, and a sort of earnestness that she had never before seen from Tom Riddle, not in all the years she’d watched him, or the weeks she had worked so nearby.
“Thank you,” he said quietly.
And there seemed nothing else to say but a barely whispered, “You’re welcome.”
At this, the slightest smile came once more to Tom’s lips. The villagers always said he was an unpleasant boy--never cheerful, that from the way he frowned down at the world he must find fault with everything. But Tom did not frown at her.
No. For Merope Gaunt, Tom smiled.
She felt as if all her anchors had been cut, as if she might float away, up and up forever.
Merope had always been described as dour, herself--what cause had she ever had for laughter, what reason for lifted lips or sparkling eyes? She understood Tom. She understood what it was to be unhappy, as he must have been. But with her, Tom laughed. He grinned. What could that mean, but that she was good for him? What could that mean, but that there was more to all this than potions and magic. They were right for each other. They were made for each other. The fact that he hadn’t realised it before didn’t make it any less true.
He lifted the hand that was still gripping the flask up between them and tapped his finger against its side, which rang with a metallic clink, clink, clink.
He was two short paces away, his entire body leaning in towards hers, a metal shard pulled in by a lodestone.
“What kind of fey creature are you, Merope Gaunt? Did you find this in some magical well, deep in your forest?...Do you mean to tempt me?”
Merope couldn’t speak. She couldn’t breathe. She shook her head. Tom stepped forward.
“You don’t?” he murmured. He was so close. She could feel his breath stirring the hairs that had escaped her braid to frame her unremarkable face.
“I...maybe?” she whispered, almost silently, not quite restraining a smile. She felt a strange warmth blooming in her chest. She was...flirting.
“Maybe, hmm?” Tom asked, reaching forward with long, pale fingers to gently lift her chin. He stared into her plain, brown eyes as if something remarkable could be found there. “Well, I’m afraid you’re proving frightfully adept.”
He leaned forward, and still, to the last second, there was a part of Merope that couldn’t really believe it was happening, that was trying to think of more logical reasons why he could be coming so near to her face.
He had faint freckles across his nose. She’d never been able to see them before.
She had time to register the scent of his aftershave--musky and cool and green, it smelled like the depths of the forest--and then his mouth was on hers, his lips pressing against her own softly, encouragingly.
She could feel his mouth curl up in a grin as she breathed deeply and relaxed against him. He parted her lips with his own, and she tasted him on her tongue--sweet and bitter, like blackberries. He nipped playfully at her ear and she giggled--giggled, the sound of her laughter high and sweet and unfamiliar--as he wound his arms around her, pressed her against the wooden stall, his fingers straying to unwind the end of her braid and run through her hair. It sent shivers shuddering down her spine, which the fingers of his other hand followed and soothed.
She was undone.
His kisses reached inside of her as if they could take her apart, find her broken pieces, and put her back together more whole and happy than she’d ever had a prayer of becoming.
Her fears had flown and her anxieties had evaporated and all her unhappy memories had melted away, all in the blink of an eye, in the press of one soft set of lips to another.
“Merope, I--” He gasped, shook his head. “You’ll think I’m mad. And I know that it’s not...I don’t want you to think that I’m toying with you. I’m not.
“What I feel...It’s the strangest thing. It’s not like it’s just bubbled up out of nowhere. It’s as if I’ve uncovered something that’s always been there, and I feel so daft for not seeing it--for not seeing you.
“I haven’t been able to stop thinking about you. It’s been on the back of my mind since yesterday, and now--”
The spell of the kiss, though, trembled, a porcelain cup at the edge of the counter, so dangerously close to being broken. Merope hesitated as the doubts began to creep in. How much of this could be true? And how much would wear off with the last of the potion?
“I’m a servant,” she whispered, in place of all the things she couldn’t say: I’m half-broken. I’m a witch. I’ve loved you so well for so long it would frighten you.
“You are so much more than that. Everyone in that house is a fraud. You’re worth a hundred of them, Merope.”
No one had ever told Merope she was worth anything. She had been called, many times, “worthless” and “good for nothing”, but no one had ever made her feel...treasured.
No one, until Tom.
“You are,” he murmured, pressing a single, sweet kiss to her forehead. Merope closed her eyes and breathed him in, reveling in the contact, in his beautiful assurance. It slipped warmly through her veins, her nerves fizzing delightfully as she leaned up against him. His lips were just beginning to stray, trailing down her cheek, to her pointed chin, to the single freckle on her neck, when...
“Tom!” the voice, feminine and shrill, echoed through the barn, causing a dozen horses to poke their heads out over their stalls in curiosity. “Tom! Where have you got to?”
Tom broke from Merope’s lips, standing up so straight she’d have thought he’d been jabbed with a hot firepoker. His chest heaving, he looked at Merope with eyes full of panic.
Merope felt her heart sinking. Two doses should be enough. It was said that love potion didn’t work well on those who were truly in love but...Cecilia Baneworth?
Tom, head over heels for Cecilia Baneworth? It couldn’t be true.
She had to know.
Fearfully, Merope reached out, resting her palm against his smooth cheek.
“Tom,” she said quietly. “Do you love her?”
He met her eyes. “No,” he said, his voice ringing with low conviction. “I don’t.”
“Tom!” Cecilia’s voice was a harpy’s shriek. Tom pulled back, glancing down at his hands, nervously the signet ring on his pinkie twisting. He lifted his head to look towards the house, perched on top of the hill, impossible to make out from the stables.
“I have something important to tell you!” The voice was closer, nearly upon them.
“Merope--” his voice rang with anxiety, with apology, and, so suddenly she barely registered the movement, Merope was being pulled into an empty stall and pushed against the wall. Her back was pressed against the wood, not nearly as smooth and well-sanded as the outer walls, it caught on her dress, pricking at the fabric. Tom pressed close against her, blocking her like a human shield.
There was a click, click of heeled boots against the bricks of the stable walkway.
“Tooom,” Cecilia called, her voice brimming with irritation and making several of the horses snort and stamp, “I know you’re in here. Hurry up and come out. You’re late for tea.”
Merope looked up into Tom’s face. His breathing was still heavy, panicked, thankfully covered by the sounds of the stable. “Do you want me to hide?” she asked quietly.
His dark eyes seemed pained, and Merope saw the answer in them clearly.
“Go,” she mouthed to Tom, not for the first time. Although, this time, he required a gentle push.
She could wait for him. She could give Tom that.
Her hands slipped from his chest as he took a step back, ran a hand through his hair, and turned his back to her, stepping out of the stall.
Stepping towards Cecilia.
“Oh, there you are,” Merope heard her say. “Your mother sent me to fetch you. We need to go up.”
“I didn’t realise it constituted a national emergency if I chose not to attend tea,” Tom answered blithely.
“You know we’re supposed to be discussing the Ladies Society Charitable Tea--”
“And, as I am neither a society lady nor a beneficiary of charity, I hardly see how I can help you with that.”
“Tom, don’t be so tiresome. You’re just being asked to put in an appearance while we discuss the important things.”
“Yes. The important things. Like table linens.”
“What’s got you in such a mood?” Cecilia demanded, her heels click, clicking their way further into the stable.
Merope felt a tickle burning urgently on the inside of her nose. She gripped it between cold fingers, desperately trying to hold back the building sneeze. “I don’t know,” Tom sighed, clearly tired of the conversation. “Look, Cecilia, I--”
“What was that?!”
The sneeze had been far too dainty for a stable hand.
Merope shrunk against the stable wall as Cecilia stomped forward, her head swiveling until she glanced into the stall and saw Merope standing their, with her braid unpinned and bits of straw tangled in her hair.
For a moment, Cecilia looked confused, and then her expression hardened.
“Tom, what is one of the maids doing in your stables?”
Merope was frozen. Her jaw opened and closed, gaping like a fish, but she could produce no sound.
“She’s here for...the new stallion,” Tom lied, almost smoothly. “He hasn’t been settling well, and none of the stable hands could calm him. They called up to the house to see if he’d respond better to a girl. In some cases--”
“Which stallion?” Cecilia challenged.
“You’ve not seen him yet. He’s out in the paddock right now.”
“Is he?” Cecilia responded, tapping her toe. It didn’t seem like a question. “Well, girl, your job is clearly done, so get back up to the house before I have you sacked for laziness.”
Merope jerked. She was so caught between fear and discomfort and anger that she didn’t know her own mind.
She despised Cecilia Baneworth--she knew that for certain--but she could not speak. Here, she was still a servant. Here, her blood meant nothing.
“Cecilia,” Tom warned in a low voice. “You will not speak to Merope that way. And you do not have the right to sack my servants.”
“Your parents’ servants,” Cecilia hissed.
“Are you really--”
“Forgive me for intruding,” Merope said quietly, ignoring Cecilia’s gasp as she was interrupted, her eyes fixed firmly on Tom’s. She bobbed a curtsy. “My lord.”
He flinched as though she had slapped him. Merope’s eyes filled with tears--she hadn’t meant it like that. She’d been trying to protect Tom, would never want to hurt him.
Her hand flinched, reaching out of its own accord to soothe the pain off his face, dropping awkwardly to her side as soon as she noticed it rising. Unable to stand another moment, she turned and dashed out of the stables, tuning out the bickering voices behind her as she rushed back up the hill.
Back to the house.
Back to the real world, where gentlemen didn’t kiss maids in stables.
And, Merope hoped and believed with every fiber of her being, he would do so again.
Hey everybody! I hope you're enjoying the story. This chapter hasn't yet been beta'd, so there might be some typos or overused words. I've just been frantically pounding away at the keyboard trying to get it submitted before the queue closure. Please let me know what you think, and if you spot some CC, kindly point it out and I'll try to clean things up once the queue is reopened.
Okay, so it's tremendously unhealthy and highly morally problematic, but does anybody ship it? Just a little? ;)
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