There's a woman on the doorstep. Henry stares, one hand still half curled around the handle to the grand door that denotes itself as the entranceway to Riddle Manor, trying to recall the last time they had been graced with such a visitor. Back before the… mess with that tramp, there had been Lady Cecilia. Understandably, the lady had not returned after hearing the news and, last Henry had heard, she'd married the Lord three towns over, birthing a healthy daughter just this last year.
The woman on the doorstep looks as if she could be of the same age as Lady Cecilia had been last Henry saw her, having just reached the cusp of adulthood and with the fine features to show for it. Certainly, she cannot be twenty, her eyes just a little too wide and her smile just a little too bright to really have completed her second decade on this earth. Nonetheless, she looks as if she comes from good stock, dressed in light silks in a fetching shade of pale pink and with hair the colour of champagne loosely woven into a side braid.
"Good morning," she greets, a slight dip of acknowledgement to her head as she speaks. "I am looking for a Mr Tom Riddle and was directed here by the townsfolk. I'm a doctor." The last of her words are almost hastily tagged on at the end, her accent some strange cross between West Country and something Henry would hazard a guess at being Scottish. He wouldn't be able to say for sure, not when the only Scot he's met was a visitor to the estate five or so years prior.
"I will ask the Master if he will receive you. Please, step in." Even in the summer months, it's impolite to leave a visitor on the doorstep, especially a young woman. She steps inside and the heels to her shoes click against the tiled floor. Henry takes a startled moment to look at them when he realises the lady's shoes are, in actual fact, adding near five inches to her height by way of the whip-thin, tall heels they boast, much unlike any kind of shoe he's ever seen before. There are no further straps to them, just a cover over her toes and they are only a shade or two darker than the silks of her dress. Definitely from money; no one else would care to buy shoes in a colour so easily dirtied.
"Thank you, shall I take a seat while I wait?"
"You may, Miss…"
She smiles and it is a charming, pretty thing. "Miss Sophia Lovegood." Ah, it is not a surprise her name is just as lovely as her. Why, if he were ten years younger and a great deal richer- Henry pushes the thought from his head, offering the young woman a short bow as she takes a seat upon the receiving sofa, one leg crossed primly over the other. It exposes just an inch or two more of her legs, clad respectably in stockings and that is the last Henry sees of the woman for the day, turning to make for the garden where Squire Riddle and his wife are enjoying the summer sunshine.
Mother fetches him a half hour before he was due to join them for afternoon tea in the garden. She's tight-lipped about why she wishes for him to join them early, but there is a softness to her smile that he instantly finds suspicious. The click of their shoes echoes on the tiled floors leading down the hallway and already he can hear his father's voice, muffled through the walls given his current positioning in the garden.
"She's from out of town," Mother suddenly shares and that alone is enough for Tom's hackles to rise. It has been three years now, but three years is simply not enough to undo all of the damage that wretch left. The scars that have been seared across his mind from whatever it was that she fed him (drugged him with, some kind of enchantment that drugged him until all felt fine, until life was nought but a pleasant haze with only the lightest trickle of a sense of wrongness) do not seem to have healed in the slightest. Perhaps they never will.
It had only taken a year for Mother to start inviting young women, ones appropriate for him to be seen with given their status, into the house. They would leave just as quickly, just as Tom realised he could not look upon them without seeing the ugly phantom of the one who has so ruined his life. Perhaps Mother mentions she is from out of town in an attempt to signify she will not have heard any of the disdainful rumours that still circulate even now, three years past his return. One would think something of note would have happened in the village to give others to talk about within that time frame but apparently not. He doesn't interact with the townspeople enough to say for sure either way.
Stepping out into the garden, Tom eyes the maid (Molly's her name, a new hire and all of fifteen years old) warily as she places a tray of finger sandwiches upon the table beside the china. Steam, visible even in the stifling heat of the summer, rises from the sprout of the teapot. Father sits up to the iron-wrought table, hands clasped loosely in his lap and a look upon his face that indicates he is waiting for the young woman to respond to whatever it is he has just said. Tom doesn't look to her, instead holding out an arm for his mother to grasp for proprieties sake. Another young woman to be paraded before him akin to a carrot before a horse. Just trying to entice him forward, an encouragement to make progress.
He's not the least bit interested.
Alas, there is only so much garden between the back door and the table at which Father sits and all too soon, they are both present too.
"Mary, Tom," Father greets them, gesturing for them to both take a seat and Tom does so only after his mother, swallowing against the lump in his throat. "This is Miss Sophia Lovegood. A doctor who has recently moved to Great Hangleton."
"Just for a year," the woman pips in, forcibly drawing Tom's gaze for the first time. The first thing that registers is just how young she is to have attained the title of doctor; she can't be more than twenty and her attire indicates she too comes from wealth. No doubt the reason his mother had fetched him from the library earlier than they had previously planned. Hair a few shades too light to be described as honey and eyes a soft cornflower blue; she's pretty in a soft sort of way.
Already the ugly spectre of Merope stands at her back, those deplorable eyes incapable of looking in one direction and face as heavy as ever. Memories are supposed to fade with time, she should not be capable of haunting him so.
"In answer to your question, Mr Riddle, my mentor recommended a year's residency at Great Hangleton as I wish to gain an understanding in the healing of the mind too and I was informed that—" In the pause of her sentence, Sophia Lovegood sips at the cup of tea Molly has silently poured for her, swallowing quietly. "—there is a character in Little Hangleton that law enforcement would like to keep an eye on in regards to his mental health."
The Gaunt. The wretch's brother who is no doubt as unnatural, as magical as Merope had been. Tom feels sick with the thought. He had known, of course, that the bastard had come back from his prison sentence this month. Three years is too short a time for the bust-up he'd subjected Tom to all those years ago; he'd even caught hives from being near the man. Only now, with the hindsight of knowing what the tramps are, does he wonder if perhaps the Gaunts did something else to him in that time. Made him think something else, just as the wretch had made him believe himself in love with her. But if this Sophia Lovegood has been directed here by law enforcement in reference to that bastard—
"The Gaunt tramp?" Mother states with a surprised sniff, mouth turning harsh with a flash of a frown. She has more than a few choice words for the last of the family to live in that hovel. "That man is dangerous— what he did to my Tom…"
—she's like them.
He can feel his heartbeat picking up, hammering in his chest faster than the stallion's hooves hit the hardpacked dirt of the trail. He'd avoided looking at the woman but now, he cannot tear his eyes away, looking for danger, for a sign of the enchantress that is hiding behind those soft blue eyes. It'd been easy to see it in Merope when the haze had lifted; how could he have possibly thought to marry such a hideous woman if not for enchantments? The being before him is a very different brand of dangerous; pretty enough to hide the devilry that lingers beneath her skin but he knows it's there, it's as if he can sense it.
"I've been well informed about Mr Gaunt's past, Mrs Riddle, though I thank you for your worry. Any interaction I am to have with him will only occur in an environment that ensures I will be safe."
"With a police officer present, I should hope," Father says, utterly oblivious to the fact that, for these people (if they can even be called as such), physical stature means nothing. With the magic this woman has, there is every chance she could create a perfectly safe environment for herself against the tramp's son. Who knows what rules they play by? They certainly seem to have no issue in stripping a man's will and thought from him. Tom clutches his teacup harder, ignoring the way a few droplets slosh over the shaking sides to land on his knuckles. The pain grounds him, keeps him present as his mother engages the witch among them in polite conversation about the surrounding area and the peasants that live nearby.
Such is his disconnection from the conversation that he does not realise what is happening until it is already too late to escape. His father had departed to fetch a medical journal written by an ancestor and that is when his mother declares she just needs to speak with the aging gardener (soon it will be time to start looking into hiring a replacement, sometime in the next five or so years) about the rosebushes.
It leaves him to entertain the witch in woman's skin. His heart thunders with the thought but, scared as he is, he cannot bring himself to flee with the fear. Instead, he clutches the teacup closer, reassured with the knowledge the tea had come from Molly who is normal and sane, that the witch has not had a chance to get close to his drink and the haze shall not overcome him again.
"I hope I am not being too forward here," Sophia Lovegood (a relatively normal name, not like the wretch's had been) says kindly, placing her half empty cup upon its matching saucer, "but I just want to check if you are feeling fine."
"I beg your pardon?" It's out of his mouth and coloured with offence before he can think to halt it, to hold it close so he does not provoke this godless being before him. Her lips press together, puckering ever so slightly.
"You have the faintest tremble to your arms; you're flushed and your pupils are dilated. You are either undertaking a course of drugs or, given what I have uncovered from listening to local gossip and listening to Mr Gaunt's ravings yesterday, still riding out the after effects of a love potion." A love potion. In an outrageously ironic way, it makes sense. The haze, the fact he awoke married to the wretch he would otherwise have never thought to look at twice (other than to sneer at her overall existence that is)— it all makes sense. It's terrifying. A potion to induce love, to fool a person into believing the feel something they most certainly shouldn't, stripping them of their free-will, effectively entrapping them in a form of slavery—
"It leaves lingering after-effects in the non-magicals for years. You appear to be in the tail-end of it though. Another few months and it will have left your system entirely. If you would like to speed up the process, I could give you—"
"Get out." It's barely a whisper of a thing, spoken with the very last of the oxygen in his lungs but Tom cannot think of a time he has meant his words more, certainly not in the last three years (not since he declared he was leaving and the wretch'd had the nerve to look heart-broken, as if she hadn't stolen his very life from him) but, by God, does he mean them with every bit of worth to his soul.
Sophia Lovegood blinks, her head cocked ever so slightly to a side. Then, with a shallow nod, she rises to her feet.
He doesn't really register the way in which she leaves. It's only later when Mother corners him with questions of why on earth he would drive this one off (pretty, intelligent, driven, what in God's name was wrong with this one— she doesn't know there's devilry beneath that lovely façade) that he learns she'd caught his father at the door to make her excuses.
She'd left her mailing address to a small townhouse in Great Hangleton, stating she would appreciate any information they could offer in regards to the alteration with Morfin Gaunt. He knows for a fact Father will write to the woman advocating for shock therapy, potentially for lobotomy, as he's read psychiatric patients are treated in such a manner. That or a return to prison. But no, such a thing will not work on those with magic. If there was a cure for their madness, then they would not be in such a way, would they? Merope had been mad too, though in a different way to her tramp of a brother. Hers had been a less obvious madness, one fools might call innocent. But no, that madness, that belief that she loved him and he her— it had stolen Tom's life from him. Had torn it out from under his feet and left him coming to in the centre of London, in an apartment he only hazily recalls renting and with a wretch of a wife absurdly believing he could ever love her.
That he had managed to flee before she could enslave him again was a miracle in and of itself.
He doesn't burn the mailing address, but it is a close thing. Better to know where the danger lies than to not, isn't it? Not that he will be making plans to visit Great Hangleton any time soon now, knowing what lives there. The Gaunt tramps, at the least, do not venture far from their hovel and were carted off when they attacked him. It's their women that appear capable of getting away with their crimes, of not being tried as they should. He will have to be careful to sustain no injury, least he need treatment for it. They very thought of being unconscious and one of them being able to 'treat' him… Swallowing down the bile in his throat, Tom makes for the library again, pushing down all the thoughts and memories of Merope and the worries of this new one.
Well, that could have gone better, Sophia thinks as she brushes down her skirt. She's wearing pale pink today. It complements the light blonde of her hair, Sophia knows that. She knows the cut of her dress highlights her slight figure, knows the way the thin silks swish around her calves is particularly nice, both to look at and to feel. The man whom had answered the door at Riddle Manor had certainly thought so, though he's too old for her tastes. An extra lifetime of memories she may have, but she is still very much only nineteen.
With a low sign, Sophia sits herself down at a table in the only cafe in town (near enough a village in truth, but the population is just a little too big to call it as such) and plucks her éclair from the paper bag it had been contained within.
Already she's dreading the next meeting with Morfin, scheduled two weeks from now. It's far too soon but she only needs three of those meetings in order to send a comprehensive report back to Saint Mungo's with her verdict. It hasn't taken her more than one visit to come to her own conclusions. The man is clearly swaddled in his own delusions of grandeur, incapable of changing his thought processes without a dedicated therapist and a great deal of time. It is... saddening to see another human being in such a state but there is little Sophia can do about it at present. She's doing as much as she can in truth, what with the recommendations she will pass on to Saint Mungo's. In truth she wouldn't be bothering with this if it weren't for the fact she jolly well does plan on having children someday in the future. A future in which Voldemort will be running amok if she doesn't take steps to stop it. She can hardly bring children into a world she knows to be dangerous, can she?
Option one has obviously been to adopt the boy herself. This, however, wouldn't solve the potential of hating muggles, certainly not the issue of hating his blood for leaving him to rot in an orphanage. Ergo, her interactions with said blood.
On the Gaunt side of things, well, it's not promising. Marvolo is dead and Morfin, well, he is in no fit state to keep a child fed, never mind actually raise one to become a functioning member of society. Even if by some miracle he could manage such a thing, the muggle hate would quite possibly be even worse. With the nearest living relative to those two being a sixth cousin in the Potter family (yes, the inbreeding had been that bad that the last time they looked outside of the family tree for another had been two centuries ago, probably only for the fact Isabella Potter had Peverell blood at that) the entire family is an utter write off.
Which leaves the Riddle side. Being Muggles themselves, there'd be no chance for the small Voldemort to grow up hating the majority of the world's population though there'd be no escaping that snooty attitude Squire Riddle and his wife had exhibited today. But that is still not an ideal option and one only needs look to Tom Marvolo Riddle's father to acknowledge why.
The man is terrified of magic.
Taking a bite of her pastry, Sophia chews thoughtfully, doing her best to ignore the two men who, upon noticing her, had descended into a quick discussion. Tom Riddle is still in the process of shaking off the love potion he has been dosed with; judging by the length of time it has been (three years since his return according to the town gossip) then it had to have been a good six to twelve months under the effects of Amortentia to still have such profound effects. Which doesn't even begin to cover the level of psychological damage; mistrust of others, anxiety, depression, sense of helplessness, the list goes on. She's only dealt with one witch placed under the potion in her year as a healer, but that had been enough. The lady had been under the potion for twelve hours and had been unable to stop crying, hyperventilated whenever a man entered the room, and wouldn't drink anything she hadn't prepared herself. Admittedly, the idea of becoming enslaved to another being, being coerced and violated in such a way is terrifying. To be held under its control for months... well, there's a reason Sophia is already drafting her first document to lobby at Wizengamot, an attempt to get Amortentia bumped up the list to potions that come with jail time if used.
If Merope were alive, she'd be calling the aurors on her. Yes, Sophia feels sorry for the woman, it's hard not to give what she has read in Morfin's file. Regardless, she'd still stolen another's autonomy and, as far as Sophia is concerned, it's as bad as the imperius curse. Awful home-life and a heart-wrenching sob story; still committed a serious crime.
Ah, she has her work cut out for her here. Well, Baby Voldemort is just that at the moment, a baby. He'll be, what, three by the end of December? If worse comes to worst and she makes no progress before he turns five, she'll face the spellfire and adopt him herself. Hell, if needs must, she'll date a few muggles and see if she can score him an adopted muggle father too. That's Plan Z though. Ideally, she'll make progress with Tom Sr who wants nothing to do with magic and he can take in the son he doesn't believe he has right now. All in a day's work, right?