Disclaimer: I do not own anything in the Harry Potter universe; JK Rowling does. No profit is being made from this fanfiction and no copyright infringement is intended.
In the spring, London's light was pale and full of hope. It was early morning when Merope walked down Diagon Alley and hung a right onto Knockturn Alley; although the new sun was blocked by the crooked darkness of Knockturn, she felt its kiss on her skin. With a pleased sigh, she brought out the large ring of skeleton keys and chose one to unlock the door of Parsel Potions, Inc. The correct key changed weekly, like a password.
Inside, there was not a speck of dust on the gleaming counters. Merope kept a house-elf named Whimsy who cleaned the shop and her flat. Merope hung the keys on the hook below the counter and opened the ledger to that day's date.
After an hour of muttering to herself over the figures, writing out order forms for rare ingredients, and filling out the necessary paperwork for certain classes of substances, Merope was ready to begin the brewing. She swept into the back room – she'd started wearing long, flowing robes in dark colours – and flicked on the witchlights. Her potions swirled in their individual cauldrons, mid-brew. She glanced over to a small niche where Tom's special project was almost complete.
The early stages of Felix Felicis danced in a tiny cauldron. Merope had been aghast at Tom's suggestion, because the potion was so tricky and he hadn't even passed OWLs yet, but Tom had convinced her that if he got it right, it could make them a fortune from just one sale. It was worth its weight in gold. The potion appeared to be advancing nicely and in a month, it would be done.
Two clients came in that morning, both wealthy, and Merope filled the order for one and took the order for another. She paused to make a pot of tea for elevenses. Another 'customer' wandered in, an old man with a grizzled orange beard, but he appeared lost and possibly drunk. Merope sent him on his way with a Repelling Charm. She took her lunch.
At two, an owl tapped on her window and Merope opened the parchment it offered with its foot.
TO: Mrs. Merope Riddle, Parsel Potions Inc.
FROM: Gringotts Wizarding Bank, Small Business and Loans Division
Your request for an accelerated repayment rate on your business loan, reference number 1352, has been approved. Please visit Gringotts at your soonest opportunity to sign the necessary forms and the new payment rate will be effective from that date.
Yours most sincerely,
Urg the Ugly
Goblin presiding, Small Loans Division
A tiny smile was Merope's only admission of triumph. The business of illicit potions was doing so well that she wanted to pay back her loan to the goblins faster, and be out from under them sooner. Merope hated being in debt to anyone.
The schedule indicated a slow afternoon and she set the cauldrons with a stasis charm. Her light cloak floated into place about her shoulders. Following Tom's tendency, Merope now used magic even for small things… he said that was what set them apart, so why should they not celebrate it? A sign went up on the door saying 'Back Soon' and Merope set off down the street with her message from Gringotts in hand.
The bank was crowded in the afternoon, full of scurrying goblins and witches and wizards. Merope passed unnoticed through the crowd and she stepped up to the help desk and presented the letter.
"That way," said the impatient goblin, and Merope turned toward the hallway she remembered from her original application.
For all their aloofness, the goblins were organized, Merope had to give them that. The Small Loans Division was efficient and signs pointed her to the desk of Urg the Ugly. She found him sitting on a stack of ledgers in front of a human-sized oak desk.
"Sit," he commanded, and she did in spite of the niggling annoyance at being spoken down to by a non-human. Merope could be rude to him once she got what she wanted and the papers were signed.
Urg's greenish, gnarled hand reached for a stack of papers and he flipped through them, muttering in Gobbledegook. Switching to English, he said, "The new terms of your loan require an annual payment rate of one thousand Galleons instead of five hundred, with an interest rate on the premium of fifteen percent."
"Fifteen percent!" Merope cried. She'd gotten the loan at eight percent. "You can't be serious."
"Because you're paying sooner, we must protect our investment too," said the goblin.
"That doesn't make sense. The interest rate should stay the same. You're just getting more of it back, and sooner."
Urg's eyes glittered; apparently the rate was up for negotiation. "The Bank of England has set the interest—"
"The Muggles," said Merope. "Surely you don't base your business on them."
"We take a longer term view," Urg said.
"Which, in this case, would be fair dealings with a valued customer who may or may not benefit Gringotts in the future… depending on your actions right now."
"Think you're a valued customer, do you?" Urg sneered.
Merope narrowed her eyes. "I know I am. My business model is the fastest growing in wizarding London."
Urg's nose twitched. "Twelve percent interest."
"Oh, fine," said Urg, and he set the papers down. He mumbled something at them and wrote in the final agreed terms in quill pen at the bottom of the parchment. "Here," he said, "sign."
Merope took several minutes to read every detail (the goblins were known to cheat on the minutia) and then with an awkward glob of ink that dropped from the pen, she signed her name on the line.
When she walked down the steps of Gringotts, she glanced over at the column where she'd once begged for money with infant Tom in her arms. She shivered once; every time she went to the bank she remembered. Why was it that horrible memories were so vivid, and she couldn't quite recall Casper Malfoy's face? Why could she still feel the numbing pain of the snow, and not remember the joyous sensation of Casper's lips kissing her?
Merope's feet took her down and away from that place in her mind. She had to pick up an order from Gambol and Japes, so she walked away from her home street of Knockturn.
The sun shone down on the crowded alley.
A stand of the Daily Prophet shouted out the day's news.
Merope's eye caught on a flash of pale blonde hair, but it was just an older witch who must have dyed it, because there was nothing familiar about the face.
Then, she saw him.
The man was tall and had matted dark hair. His walk was so dreadfully familiar and for a moment her heart seized in panic, before it began to beat again, and flutter like a trapped bird.
Merope didn't realise she'd stopped walking until someone bumped into her from behind.
"Pardon me!" said the voice, annoyed, but she scarcely heard it.
Morfin Gaunt walked toward her. His head was dipped low. Merope couldn't tell whether his reddish, mad eyes could see through the curtain of filthy hair. There was a crowd between them but it wasn't enough… a million people between Merope and her brother would not have been enough.
A strange tingling began in her chest and spread outwards. Her ears rang and a frightening blackness edged at her vision. She couldn't move, couldn't breathe… Meanwhile, Morfin came closer.
Stay away, Merope thought, and it seemed as though the others on Diagon Alley might have heard her, because they gave Morfin a wide berth. In a few minutes he would be upon her, would run straight into her.
Merope dropped her eyes to the ground, hoping that when she raised them again, the apparition would be gone, but it wasn't. And then, as her nervous fingers grasped the strings of her package from Gambol and Japes, she remembered: Gringotts. The shop. Her son. Her Tom. She was a Gaunt no longer… and with that, she darted into a knot of people, past Morfin, holding her breath that he would not see her, and then the danger was past.
She ran back to the shop. She opened the door and it jangled merrily and she closed it again, locked it, and drew all the curtains. Parsel Potions Inc. was shut for the day.
She dropped her package on the counter and walked into the back room, unsure of what she was doing. Tom's Felix Felicis danced in its cauldron and Merope was overcome with a desire to drink it all down. To do so at this stage of the brewing would be fatal… which was perhaps part of the appeal. A poetic way to die: drinking liquid luck gone bad.
There was a knock on the door.
Merope almost collapsed. Unmoving, she waited for whoever it was to go away… what if it was Morfin? What if he'd found her after all these years to take his revenge – and take her happiness? Merope imagined him crashing through the door, breaking it down, the way he'd broken her so many times. Her entire body shook with the fear of it.
Yet, nobody broke the door down (Just a customer, said Merope's rational mind) and when she was able, she raised her wand and cast a warding charm.
It didn't work.
Squib, said the voice in her head, the one she hadn't heard in a very long time. Dirty ugly useless squib.
She tried the charm again, and nothing but a sad shower of sparks fizzled out of the end of her wand.
It's not working, I'm trying but it's not working. It was as though Merope was a little girl again and her brother was towering over her and her father scowling from the corner as she tried—tried, and failed—to cast a spell.
Her throat began to close. Her wand clattered to the floor. Barely, she managed to whisper… "Whimsy!" and then a weak snap of her fingers.
The house elf appeared with its normal 'crack' and bowed. "Yes, Mrs. Riddle?"
It helped to hear that name. No more Gaunt, not ever. She was Mrs. Riddle, respectable widow and mother of Tom Riddle, the best wizard at Hogwarts.
"A cup of tea, with sugar," Merope said.
And for six days Merope did not open the shop, nor did she leave it, and she threw herself into the brewing of potions—the one form of magic she could do, even with her brother roaming somewhere nearby— and Whimsy brought her small plates of toast to eat.
Tom came home for the summer and Merope, contrary to her normal habit, did not meet him at Kings Cross. He was seventeen now, after all, and more than capable of finding his own way home.
However, it was with a startling 'pop' that Tom showed up in the sitting room itself.
"Tom!" said Merope, clutching her chest. "For Merlin's sake!"
He shrugged and set down his small bag. "I have my license now. Why not?"
"Because I was unprepared," said Merope. "I expected you from the train station."
"Naw, too much trouble. I just walked to Hogsmeade instead. Besides, from King's Cross I would have had to take a taxi. And that would mean rubbing shoulders with Muggles, eh?" He walked behind her and gave her a moment's affectionate massage of her own shoulders.
"Still," said Merope, calming down, "You could have warned me, at least."
"Expect the unexpected!" Tom declared.
To disguise her shudder (too close to the truth), Merope stood up and went to the kitchen to put on the teapot.
Tom did not notice the small signs of stress; he spoke brightly of his own news. "We've been learning so much," he said, "and Mum, I wish you could have gone to Hogwarts. That castle has endless treasures… and only I know about all of them. Even Dumbledore doesn't know Hogwarts the way I do. Of course, he's not descended from one of the Founders. I don't think he is, anyway…" Tom paused as if troubled. "Anyway, everything's going blazingly well, Mum."
"I'm glad," said Merope with a smile. "It's good I didn't send you to Durmstrang after all."
"Ha! Their castle isn't even heated properly." Like Nagini, Tom preferred warm weather and warm rooms, as though he absorbed the energy through his pale skin.
"What would you think of a trip to the countryside?" Merope said.
"The countryside?" Tom was puzzled. "Why?"
"Oh," said Merope wildly, "a change of scenery! Get out of London for awhile. In fact, I was thinking we should move."
"Move? Mother, are you all right? There's a spring flu going round, maybe you've—"
"No, I'm quite fine. I just… it's the memories of this flat, you know… Casper…"
Tom raised his eyebrows. His concern for her overrode anything else, as Merope knew it would. "But Mum, it's been almost two years. We've been in this flat longer with him dead than when he was alive."
"Tom! How could you!" Like a wave breaking, Merope's held-back tears spilled from her eyes, and it was nothing to do with Casper Malfoy. That was a slight wound compared to the ones Morfin had inflicted. Tom could not know that, however. He would never think the same of her.
"I'm sorry!" Tom said, and he conjured a handkerchief for her out of thin air. Merope almost didn't notice that he'd done it wandlessly. But as his face hovered in front of her, and his eyes held hers (he had such dark eyes), Merope's true thoughts bubbled up in her mind and she saw Morfin. Morfin as a boy, already too large and too strong. Morfin as a teenager, desirous to hurt her every way, every where. Morfin as a man, his mind broken, hissing in that language, walking down the Alley toward her on a too-bright morning.
"I'm fine, thank you, sweetheart," said Merope, turning her eyes away from her son. She wouldn't tell him anything; it would only worry him.
"Morfin," said Tom, and then suddenly it was all too late.
"How -?" Merope stared at Tom. Was he a mind-reader? Had someone taught him Legilimency, of all things? (Merope had only learned about Legilimens after reading about it in the Daily Prophet. Her magical education was somewhat deficient.) "What has… has… Morfin got to do with anything?"
Tom's face was like a mask. "You saw him recently. Don't lie to me, Mother."
"I wouldn't lie to you, Tom," she said. She averted her eyes as she said it, but to look at him would be a giveaway too. Her own web seemed to trap her. If only there was a way to explain about Morfin, without the rest of it… "I haven't seen him in a long time. It startled me. He didn't see me. That's all there is to say about it."
"I don't think so," said Tom. "I'll wait. I'll sit right here. No supper until you tell me, Mum…" He tried a smile on her, that charming sideways smile, and it worked, curse the boy.
Anything she said in the heat of the moment would be more believable, anyway. Merope recited the lies she'd told herself for so many years… the lies she'd spun to other people… and she almost believed them herself. "Tom, your uncle Morfin isn't right in the head. He's been in Azkaban all these years. I haven't seen him or heard from him. He must be out, though, because he was on Diagon Alley. I – I don't think he knows about us. It's better if he never knows. He's not right."
"He cursed someone," she said. Tom was looking at her and she had to bite back the thought: he cursed your father. It hovered but never formed and so Merope plunged ahead to say what happened, sort of. "He hates Muggles. He hexed one, badly, and so they gave him a sentence for breaking the International Statute of Secrecy, as well as for the hex itself."
"But my father, you said, was a Muggle," said Tom. "Does Morfin know that?"
"No," said Merope. The word was as easy to say as 'yes', without hesitation. "No, I ran away from home. Came down here to London. The past is better left in the past."
Tom frowned. "But what if Morfin finds out about the business, or where we live? You don't think he'll come looking for you? Mum, when I'm at school, there's no one here to protect you if he's as mad as you say he is." There was a pause, and then he said, "Ah! Moving to the countryside? You're afraid of him!"
"Tom, if you understood – "
"Then tell me! You're full of secrets! Don't think I don't know… there are things you never want to talk about, but that doesn't make them unimportant. You're being unfair. I'm old enough to know. You waited years to tell me that we were descended from Slytherin. What else are you keeping from me?"
"No!" Merope shouted. Tom wielded his words like a sword, slashing through her defenses, and she was terrified of him… and of what he would do when he learned of her perfidy. "Morfin is a bad, bad man, Tom."
"And I'm a much more powerful wizard than he is," said Tom. He glowered, not at her, but at a point beyond her head. "In fact, I don't wonder if I should track him down and let him be afraid of us."
"Oh, no, no, don't do that!"
"Where does he live?"
"Er… just outside Newcastle, that's where we grew up," said Merope, thinking fast, lying, keeping the word Derbyshire as far away as possible. "Please, Tom. I mean it about this flat. It's not really our style, anyway. The crowds, London… it's all getting to me. I want to move."
Tom was still frowning. "If you're afraid of Morfin, it would be safer to have other people around."
"Morfin doesn't have the presence of mind to go looking for us. I'm sure he thinks I'm dead. I intend to keep it that way. I'll Floo in to the shop every day."
"Becoming a hermit is not the solution," said Tom.
"I see customers every day," said Merope.
"I do like the countryside," Tom admitted.
"How about…" Merope almost said Wiltshire, because it was beautiful, but then the shadowed memory of Malfoy Manor (Abraxas) stilled the thought. "How about Devon? Near the seashore?"
"If it's what you want," Tom said. He appeared to have moved on to some other thought, his eyes resting on a blank spot on the wall.
"I'll write the estate agents' today," said Merope. "Now, tell me more about school. How is Professor Slughorn?"
During the first week of the summer holiday, Tom sent out a short note to all the members of his Death Eater club, instructing them to pick up copies of 'Curses and Counter-curses.' Minnie McGonagall wrote back – she told him that on the last day of school, she'd overheard Professor Dumbledore say that Professor Merrythought would be retiring after the next year. Tom grinned. About time, he thought. He wondered who would replace her. Perhaps McGonagall had an eye on a teaching position? No, Tom decided, she's not experienced enough. And she'd likely go for Transfiguration or Astronomy.
It led him down another path of thought, of what his "students" would do after they graduated. Several, like Minnie, were in the year above him and would be heading into the world with Tom's teaching under their belts. It could prove useful to have ranks outside Hogwarts.
He glanced through his doorway into the sitting room. His mother was sitting at the table, sorting through real estate advertisements. "This one sounds good," she would mutter occasionally to herself. "No," was the response to others.
Moving again. There was much to ponder: a new house, finishing his year at Hogwarts, world events, the Death Eaters, the long-term goal of destroying the Malfoy family … and then, there was the problem of his uncle Morfin. It festered in his mind. Merope was reacting very badly to it all, which confirmed Tom's instinct that there was much more to the family history than met the eye.
This summer would be too busy, in between moving house and teaching himself the Dark Arts, but soon... Tom decided he would take matters into his own hands. He would not live under the fear of family madness. His mother's response was to retreat, but he wouldn't have any of that. If Morfin was a threat, then Tom would neutralise it. He wasn't sure quite how, but a solution would come to him sooner or later. There was no wizarding equivalent of a criminal mental institution so perhaps Tom could frame Morfin for something… something to put him back in Azkaban for good.
"Tom? What do you feel like for supper, chicken pie or fried kippers?" Merope popped her head in the door.
"Chicken pie, thanks," said Tom absently, fingering his quill pen.
Their new cottage was perched near a cliff and there was a rocky path down to a rocky beach. The gentle crash of the sea was comforting to Merope, despite that Casper had died on the seashore… maybe because of it. It made her think of eternity. Those waves had reached millennia of human ears.
Whimsy hummed to herself as she cleaned the floors of the clutter of moving. Their furniture was in place. The ceilings were low-beamed and the windows had a diamond crisscross pattern. White curtains were hung, an expensive Persian rug covered the aged floorboards, and Merope smiled at the wooden staircase with a leaf-carved handrailing. For some reason she liked staircases, and was happy this house had one.
The cottage had three good-sized bedrooms, a sitting room, dining room, kitchen, bathroom, and a small study which Merope had set aside for brewing and storage. It was a Muggle residence, and through the window Merope could see Tom waving his wand, casting wards and Muggle-repelling charms. They wouldn't be invisible because Muggles might wonder where Halfmoon Cottage (as it was named) had gone – but Merope was more concerned with keeping a low magical profile.
"Did you know the alchemist Flamel lives nearby?" Tom said, wiping his feet on the doormat before entering.
"I didn't," said Merope.
"Yah. With his wife. He's French. So is she."
"Hmm," said Merope, unimpressed with the idea of the French. They seemed a snobby race, and Merope feared snobbery. "I'm sure they keep to themselves."
"I suppose," said Tom, sounding disappointed. He must have been hoping for an introduction to the Philosopher's Stone. "Anyway, the charms are cast. Everything's set up."
"Thank you, dear. I'll make us some tea, it's already half-four. Oh! I just remembered." Merope scampered up the stairs for the book she'd received second-hand from a grateful customer. She knew Tom would like it: a book of obscure magical creatures. It was out of print and banned in some countries, likely due to its graphic descriptions of vampirism and the technicalities of breeding sphinxes.
She found it upstairs wrapped in tissue for the move, along with the boxes of other books, and she brought it downstairs to present it to your son. "A gift," she said.
Tom smiled. "A book…" He always had a tone of wonder in his voice when it came to knowledge. With long fingers (His hands have gotten so manly, Merope realised as she watched him) he unwrapped the book with care. "Forbidden Creatures," he read aloud. "Mum! Thank you!"
"You're welcome," she said. "Take care with that book, it's very hard to find."
"I know," said Tom, "we don't have it in the library at Hogwarts."
"Tea?" Merope asked, setting the water to boil.
"Sure," said Tom, already distracted as he began to read.
Merope smiled at her son, and she smiled at the sun's rays making a pattern on the carpet, and at the breeze that moved the curtains. This was a peaceful place. She hadn't known how much she'd begun to dislike London until she was away from it.