He was perfect.

So clean always – his collar always immaculate, his shirtfronts always crisp and clean. His hair shone, and his eyes gleamed, and when he walked or ran the play of his muscles, smooth like butter, was visible.

Merope had seen his house once. She wasn't supposed to – if her father had found out… But she'd been lost, and she stumbled across the house almost by accident. Everything was tidy.

The hedges were clipped neatly, the little red flowers seemed to blaze at her from the ground, and the glass was as smooth and soft to the touch as velvet. She wanted to stroke the ground, she wanted to make herself a home in a tree and never leave.

And then she looked in the house. Not from inside, of course, but through the windows – and even the windows sparkled.

There were no snakes. No dirt on the ground, no broken furniture, no cobwebs. All Merope saw were soft chairs and gleaming wooden tables. The people in that house seemed to live in such comfort – Merope knew that they slept on warm beds and had hot baths. There would be no shouting, no fights, no furious pronouncements of superiority; there would just be kindness, gentleness…

She was driven away from the house by the gamekeeper, who seemed to think she was likely to steal something. But Merope didn't care. She wanted to see who lived there, what family was so blessed as to live in that house.

And so she hid herself near the gates, and sat for hours in the shadows, until he came by on his horse. He looked like a prince, or a brave knight, so lordly and handsome. The light of the sun was reflected and refracted by his hair, and Merope lowered her eyes, dazzled by such splendour. She'd never seen a man like that before.

She was late home that day, late enough that her father grew angry. It did not take much to anger Marvolo Gaunt, and yet Merope could never seem to nerve herself against it. She longed to be strong, longed to answer back, even if only once, but…she hated loud noises. Her father had merely to shout in her face, or smash a glass, and all Merope's wished for strength would crumble.

Late at night, alone in her room, to keep herself from weeping, Merope would think of that Muggle. Tom Riddle came from a different world – with light and brightness and beauty – and she ached, oh she ached to be made a part of it. For all her father's talk of the purity of blood, she lived in filth; she drowned in filth.

He was a special part of her, the one good thing in her life. He was her dream in the dark of the night – he was her hope of escape – he was the one pleasure she was allowed. Marvolo Gaunt could shout at her, abuse her, beat her, but he could not get into Merope's mind. He could not take that dream from her.

She often thought that Tom Riddle would not have accepted her father's treatment of her. He had been raised to treat women with decency and kindness – he had been raised to be courteous at all times. Merope knew it in her heart; no one who came from such a family, a family that understood how to live, could ever be cruel. She would fantasize about his kind words, his soft voice, his gentle…touch, until her face grew red and she had to hide from her father until all traces of such unseemly feelings had vanished.

Merope honestly thought that when her father and brother were gone, when their breath no longer stank up their home, when she had begun to clear away every trace of them, that Tom Riddle would finally see her devotion. It had been overshadowed before by all the dirt her father had insisted upon, the foulness of the life he and Morfin had forced upon her.

Untidiness, filthiness, hurt Merope – she hated to look upon it. She hated it. Things should be beautiful and clean and perfect, like Tom was, and so she busied herself, for weeks, trying to perfect her house, her garden. But she could not grow grass like velvet.

All her attempts to make herself beautiful were to no avail, and finally Merope grew tired of seeing that blotched, ugly face in the mirror; a face that seemed to bear all the scars of life with her father. Could she expect Tom to see through such a face, to realize the love that was his?

No, she could not. He had never looked into the dark; he was an innocent. How could he recognize what he had never been taught to see? But if he could…if he could have seen the way her heart beat with his, well then…then everything would be different.

It was not so hard, really. In peace and quiet Merope could summon the words that had always deserted her when her father was near, and for all his beauty, Tom was a Muggle. As Morfin had shown her, Muggles were blind to a wizard's power.

And for a time, Merope was happy. Her husband was everything she had hoped for – handsome, kind and gentle. He never touched unless she asked him to, and they slept in soft beds.

Tom had rescued her – he had taken her away from everything, all that dirt that Merope had thought would cling to her, would taint for the rest of her life. She told him that; told him he was her knight and her saviour, because she thought it would make him happy.

All she wanted was to make him happy, to prove her gratitude for his kindness. Merope would have given him anything – she was going to give him a son. A son who would be beautiful, who would look at the world through innocent eyes, just as Tom had.

But he left. And did not return.