Author's Notes: This is an Alternate Universe story in which Merope Gaunt Riddle survives to raise her son, Tom. The premise is that as Merope is dying in the ward of the orphanage, she sees something in the window, a vision of what is to come for Tom's life… and horrified by what sees, she musters enough strength to save her own life through magic.
Disclaimer: I do not own anything in the Harry Potter universe; JK Rowling does. No profit is being made and no copyright infringement is intended.
When the doorbell rang on a cold, windy New Year's Eve, it sounded like a death knell to Mrs. Lucy Cole. Ringing at such an hour, on such a night, the bell could not mean good news. She was right.
'Get that, would you, Mary?' Mrs. Cole called to the Irish scullery maid. The Stockwell Orphanage was too short on funds to keep a permanent maid to answer the door, so the kitchen girls and cleaners took turns with the welcoming duties. The girl, Mary, scurried over to the door and pulled the latch.
Standing hunched-over on the stoop was the outline of a very pregnant young woman. She was soaked to the skin from melted snow; behind her, sharp crystals of ice swirled into unfriendly drifts. A great chill gust swept into the front hall of the building. Mary squeaked in surprise.
'Oh, good Lord,' said Mrs. Cole. 'Right. Get her into a bed, then.' She stepped forward and took the woman's arm; it was scrawny and weak. There was snow dusted on her shoulders and hair, white flakes that were now melting into pneumonic cold water. This was trouble, oh, plain as the floorboards, yes. Mrs. Cole noticed that the woman's feet barely made a sound as she walked; despite her advanced pregnancy she could not have weighed more than eight stone. Too thin, far too thin.
'Here, missus,' said Mary, helping Mrs. Cole and the mystery woman into the tiny ward for unwed mothers. Mary carried an old-fashioned gas lantern that threw dancing shadows behind them. A bed was turned down and ready. A table next to it held scissors, a basin of hot water, and a pile of clean cloths.
'Onto the bed, miss, here we are. My name is Mrs. Lucy Cole, I help with the orphanage. Here,' Mrs. Cole helped the woman up onto the bed. It seemed to sap all of the pregnant woman's strength and her face grew so pale that it looked bloodless. Gritting her teeth, Mrs. Cole spread the woman's legs and lifted her ragged dress, gesturing for Mary to bring the lantern for a proper look. 'No time for the doctor,' she muttered to herself. The baby was coming, and soon; the woman was well into the labor process.
'Mary, get some hot water, start the fire, and we'll need scissors, some clean rags, and… the fire, girl! She's freezing. For that matter, so am I.'
Mary ran off at Mrs. Cole's bidding.
The pregnant woman would not give her name and did nothing but murmur incoherently. Mrs. Cole wondered if there was an infection or a fever. Tears streamed down the woman's cheeks to mingle with the snowflakes already hovering there; her hair was ragged and stringy. She was not a pretty creature. A dark, mean part of Mrs. Cole wondered what man would bother to take advantage of someone so ugly. Newly married herself, she was no stranger to the appetites of men, but it was generally acknowledged that only loose, attractive, undisciplined young things got themselves into this kind of trouble. At least, that was the common case in the orphanage's unwed mother's ward. This newcomer did not fit the description.
A cry, the strongest yet from the soon-to-be mother, and Mary clapped her hands over her mouth. Somewhere outside, thunder sounded. The snow continued in furious eddies outside the windowpanes and all Mrs. Cole could think was that it was so wet. Wet cheeks, wet clothes, dark red wet on the sheets as the birthing process began. The rest of the ward was empty and so both Mrs. Cole and Mary could focus all their attention on the poor vagrant woman.
Was she a prostitute, Mrs. Cole wondered? A destitute woman who had resorted to selling herself? Had she been forced? There were many questions to be answered but no time to ask them. The baby was almost in the world.
The woman screamed loudly, one last time, and fell into incoherent gasps of pain.
'Push!' said Mrs. Cole. 'For the love of God, woman, push!'
She did. There was a final spasm of pain on her face and then her head fell slack to the side. She was breathing heavily. Mary, on the other end, caught the newborn child.
'W-what do I do, ma'am?' Mary stuttered.
'Here,' said Mrs. Cole. She snatched up the scissors and cut the already-shriveling umbilical cord. It was a neat snip; the baby would have a normal belly-button. She allowed a moment of self-congratulation as the baby (a look between its legs revealed it as a boy) opened his little mouth and issued a great squalling, healthy cry. Mrs. Cole washed the boy off with warm water and quickly wrapped him up against the cold night.
His mother did not look good. She was paler than she had been before; the sheets beneath her were soaked with blood. Mrs. Cole had seen many a childbirth since she started working in the orphanage; it was known as a place where young mothers could come and leave their children up for adoption. It was the largest institution in South London. Mrs. Cole had gotten her job when she was nineteen years old, five years ago, and it looked like she would take over as headmistress of the orphanage soon. It suited her well, for she was organized, no-nonsense, and a good Christian.
Tonight, however, her good Christianity deserted her for a moment as she gazed down on the bleeding woman. Mrs. Cole wished for the problem to be gone. The baby boy had stopped crying after his brief, loud protest at being flung into the world, and now he was preternaturally silent and staring with eyes that were too focused for a newborn. In the gaslight it was impossible to tell what color his eyes were, but they were dark.
Suddenly wanting to be rid of the burden, Mrs. Cole handed the child over to his weak mother. 'See,' Mrs. Cole said, 'your son. Give him a name.'
The woman's cracked lips moved but no sound came out. She tried again. 'T-Tom, for his father,' she whispered. 'A-and Marvolo for his grandfather. Tom Marvolo Riddle.'
'Hmmph,' said Mrs. Cole. An odd name. She disapproved of oddity. 'Wait here,' she said unnecessarily, for the woman hardly could have moved.
'I-I…' the woman said. She gulped in some air as though it were the last thing she could do, and indeed the situation looked dire: her nose was pinched and her face sallow in the way that suggested death was close behind. She had lost a terrible amount of blood. 'I hope he looks like his father,' she managed to say.
'Hmmph,' said Mrs. Cole again. She hoped so too, for the boy's sake; his mother's features were most unattractive. 'I'll be back. Mary, come with me.'
Mrs. Cole left the mystery woman with her baby and walked down the hall to her office to retrieve the birth certificate form. Her hand hovered over another file of papers; deciding, she retrieved a death certificate, too. For the mother.
All the world was fuzzy. Limbs were unfelt, surroundings were unseen. Merope Gaunt's eyes fluttered open to a dark room. To her left something bright and yellow burned; she turned her head just enough to focus on a gas lamp. A Muggle gas lamp. Where was she?
Something moved in her arms. She glanced down and saw that her baby, her son, was born and blinking up at her with dark blue eyes. Merope knew that she herself was dying. The life was draining out of her onto dark red (once white) sheets. Her life was forfeit so that this little marvel of a being could survive. Her last tears gathered in her eyes.
A great upwelling of love filled her heart as she gazed down at little Tom. He would look like his father, she could tell already, and thanked Merlin for it. Her maternal love overtook her, a great pink cloud of well-being, a yearning to do nothing but hold her son forever and ever. To nurture him and help him and give him a world she'd never known… there was nothing else Merope could have asked for. She loved Tom Marvolo Riddle a million times more than she had even loved his father, a feat she would have thought impossible.
'Tom,' she whispered. 'Tom. I love you.'
He made a little baby noise and waved his hands in the air. The tiny cry meant that he was hungry, Merope knew, but she had not the strength to push her nightgown aside for him. She could do nothing but hold him.
The pain of childbirth was gone now. Every part of her was numb. It was fading, fading, and she noted dimly that the matron of the orphanage had re-entered the ward and was saying something to her. Holding a piece of paper. It did not matter. Merope gazed past the Muggle woman's head and towards the heavy glass window that protected them from the elements. The night beyond the glass was sodden velvet.
As she watched the window, something strange happened. A swirling of the snowflakes beyond; they looked like a tunnel, or a whirlpool, defying gravity. The formless assumed form, but for Merope's eyes only.
A face in the glass. Tom, her baby. He was older, perhaps ten or eleven, with hollowed face darkened by something beyond. Then he was a handsome man, glaring at her, seeming to hate her. 'Why?' he mouthed. Merope gasped. As she watched, that beautiful face morphed into something serpentine. Something horrible. His eyes flashed red and he wielded a wand. 'Why?' he mouthed again, except that out of his mouth came a forked tongue. Merope squawked a cry of despair.
'No,' she whispered. 'No.'
'It's all right,' said Mrs. Cole. 'We'll take care of the child, put him up for adoption. You can rest now.'
Merope understood. She was given permission to die. But – the vision haunted her. How could it be? Something pierced her numbness, an awareness as though she'd forgotten something vital. She could not leave just yet. And so, with death hovering close above her head, Merope made a final effort. She held her son tight against her breast and turned her head to Mrs. Cole. 'Leave us for a moment,' she gasped out.
Mrs. Cole looked about to protest, but then nodded curtly and left the ward.
Alone again, Merope's hand crawled beneath the bedcovers and pulled from her nightgown's pocket a thin piece of wood. Her wand, hawthorne, ten inches. Her father had laughed at her using it, for it had belonged to Merope's maternal grandmother, and old Marvolo thought it too long and powerful for a near-Squib like Merope to use. She would show him otherwise.
'Sano Penitus,' she murmured, pointing her wand at her abdomen. A small dark green light flared, but then sputtered out. The spell was weak. Merope sighed. She did not have much time or much strength left… if she could not do this, then her eleventh-hour plan would die with her. 'Sano Penitus,' she commanded again with the last power in her voice.
The healing spell took this time. A stronger green light glowed out of the tip of her wand and surrounded her lower abdomen, hovering there in a cloud that grazed her thighs. Within the green cloud, small tendrils of pure white light whipped around, as though threads directed by an unseen needle, stitching her back together. Merope felt a strange flipping sensation in her womb. Her hand dropped back to her side, clutching the wand, all her reserves used up.
Through it all, baby Tom did not make a sound. He just stared up at his mother.
Merope only just managed to conceal her wand beneath the bedcovers before Mrs. Cole came back in, trailed by the other Muggle girl. They spoke in whispers. The world was heading towards black again. Merope made a feeble noise of protest when they took Tom away from her, but she was too weak. Something deeper than sleep descended upon her.
When Merope opened her eyes again, everything was bright white. Pure. Clean. Was she dead? Had she passed to the other side? Her eyes focused on the leaded panes of a window opposite her… then, her gaze trailed down to land on her own body, prone and covered with a threadbare woolen blanket. Not the sort of the thing that she'd imagined for the afterlife.
'She's awake,' said a voice to her right.
Merope turned her head to see a girl she did not know, half outside a door, speaking to someone. A look at the unlit Muggle lantern on the nightstand brought it all back. She was in an orphanage, in the ward, in London. Her baby was born, a boy. His name was Tom.
'Tom,' Merope said. Her lips were cracked. 'Tom!'
'Calm down, miss, your babe's fine,' said the girl in the door, staring unabashedly.
So he was. Mrs. Cole bustled into the room, carrying a swaddled bundle in her skinny, businesslike arms. 'You made it through, then,' she said to Merope, minor astonishment on her sharp features. She was not an unkind-looking woman, just frazzled. 'Here, he'll be wanting milk, if you can manage. We've had him with Celeste, one of the kitchen girls who's weaning her own child, but…' Mrs. Cole trailed off, holding out the baby.
Merope's hands reached out for him. She was surprised that she was alive still. The healing spell must have worked. She had just enough energy to take little Tom, kiss his forehead. He gurgled at her. She smiled back.
Then Merope pushed down the neckline of her nightgown; it was so torn up that the fabric gave way without much force. The rest came naturally. A wave of great contentment washed over her. Who could have guessed that motherhood would be so wonderful? If she had known, she would never have even considered dying and missing out on it. Last night she had been in the depths of despair, seeing nothing but darkness and misery ahead of her. But this morning, she had a son. Someone to love.
'The baby's birth certificate is in my office,' said Mrs. Cole. 'You can take it with you or leave it here, it's up to you.'
'Take it with me?' Merope asked, looking up.
'Yes, when you leave. You can't live here, child.' There was nothing soft in Mrs. Cole's voice. For her, it was business as usual.
'Oh,' echoed Merope. All of a sudden the world seemed not so rosy. It was something she had not considered. Where to go next was simply finding a place to have her child and then die. But now, as her body gained in strength, having been pulled back from the brink, Merope had to consider what to do next. A lump formed in her throat. It was too much to handle, she had nothing, no-one, no home…
At her breast, the baby pulled away, evidently full. Distracted, Merope pulled her gown back into place.
'Where will I go?' she asked Mrs. Cole.
'Haven't you any family?' the matron asked.
Merope shook her head.
'Who is the father of the child, if I may ask? If—if you know?'
With a sigh, Merope shook her head again. Was this woman stupid? Muggles. 'The father—my husband—abandoned us. He's gone. I can't go back.'
'Your husband?' Mrs. Cole asked. A small gleam appeared in her eyes as though she was interested in the story, or surprised by it.
'My husband.' And Merope closed her mouth, unwilling to relive the pain of it, the memories of how Tom Riddle had reacted when she told him what she was.
'If I were you,' said Mrs. Cole, pausing by the door without the gratification of Merope's life story, 'I would go back to my own people. You have to try, girl. London is no place for a sprite of a thing like you and a brand-new baby. The streets are hard and cold. But, as I said, you can leave the child with us for now. You can get on your feet, come back for him later. If you like.'
Merope clutched Tom closer to her chest. Give him up? She couldn't. Tom made a small noise and she loosed her hold for fear of squeezing him too tight. 'I'm not giving you my baby!' she blurted.
Mrs. Cole sighed. Then she left the ward.
Left alone with her thoughts, Merope held Tom close to her and, because it was easier that way, she spoke aloud to him.
'What's to become of us, little Tom? Where will we go? What'll we do?'
Tom blinked at her. In the morning light coming through the snow-banked windows, Merope saw that his eyes were a startling dark shade of blue, almost purple, as though a hint of red lurked inside them. Merope stared, entranced for a moment, then blinked back at him. She wondered how his eyes had come about; a logical combination of her dull blue eyes and her husband Tom's lovely brown eyes, no doubt. In any case, it was quite fetching.
'I have nothing left,' she whispered to baby Tom. 'I've sold it all… my locket, everything. I have only my wand left. But I can't go home, you see! Papa's in prison, and Morfin...' she shuddered. Her brother would kill the infant. Her brother was a monster.
Tom gurgled again. His eyes dropped shut, first the left one, then the right. Peace settled across his flawless infant face. Gazing down at him, Merope wished that she could feel the same.
Yet, something Mrs. Cole had said resonated with her… go back to your own people, she'd said. That, to Merope's ears, meant the wizarding world. She had lived as a Muggle for nearly six months with her husband, but there was no question now that her life as the odd Mrs. Riddle was over. She would have to return to wizarding London at some point… she wondered if little Tom would grow up to be a wizard.
'But of course,' she whispered, remembering last night's vision of him grown-up, holding a wand, a terrifying snake-like warp on his brow… 'That doesn't have to happen,' she murmured, in a singing voice, so as not to wake the sleeping baby, 'I'll protect you. I'll give you the world, Tom, the world…'
For three days Merope stayed in the Stockwell Orphanage. It was, according to Mrs. Cole, only until she had the strength to get up and walk around. The mornings brought cool, gummy porridge; the afternoons meant broth and tea. Merope never complained. She was on these Muggles' charity, an uncomfortable position for her, and she did not forget it.
Meanwhile, she was allowed to keep Tom with her. For that she was grateful. He was her family now, and she his. All they had was each other. Tom very rarely cried, most likely because his mother was right there with him the whole time, and so he did not need to attract attention to himself. Merope imagined that Tom was content and that thought pleased her. She hoped she could always keep him content.
On the fourth day of January (for Tom was born at 11:22, the night of December 31st), Merope was able to walk around without her legs shaking. It was enough to take her to Diagon Alley. Mrs. Cole handed her a castoff old dress that was the colour of eggplant; it was made of rough-spun wool and drab as they come. Merope accepted the dress because she could not walk around London in a tattered nightgown. She also accepted a pair of clogs that would protect her feet from the snow.
'We don't give away clothes,' Mrs. Cole told her, pursing her lips, 'but in this case we'll make an exception. It's the Christian thing to do.'
'Be sure to thank the Christians for me, then,' said Merope.
A look of consternation had appeared on Mrs. Cole's face, although Merope could never understand the fuss about Christianity, having no part in its beliefs. If it meant a dress she was prepared to give thanks.
There was no sense of leaving the Stockwell Orphanage, for leaving meant packing up one's things, saying goodbyes, promising to write. Merope had nothing to pack, no one to say goodbye to, and she would never write to Muggles. They wouldn't know what to do with an owl, for one thing. So when she was dressed and her feet were inside the uncomfortable wooden clogs, and Tom was wrapped up against the cold and cradled in her arms, Merope walked out the door.
Behind her, Mrs. Cole closed the door and sighed in relief. The matron could not put her finger on why, but she felt as though she had narrowly escaped something bad. It was good to see the back of the once-pregnant Merope and her strange son, Tom Marvolo Riddle.